Federal ethics programs seek to safeguard the integrity of governmental decision-making. That includes oversight of political appointees serving in the executive branch.
We reviewed information available on executive branch political appointees and examined 3 agencies' ethics programs. We found
There is no single source of publicly available, comprehensive, and timely data on appointees
2 of the 3 agencies we examined could strengthen their programs
We made recommendations to improve the ethics programs in 2 of the agencies we reviewed, and also asked Congress to consider requiring the collection and publishing of information on appointees.
A compass with the dial pointed toward the word "ethics"
What GAO Found
There is no single source of data on political appointees serving in the executive branch that is publicly available, comprehensive, and timely. Political appointees make or advocate policy for a presidential administration or support those positions. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and two nongovernmental organizations collect, and in some cases, report data on political appointees, but the data are incomplete. For example, the data did not include information on political appointee positions within the Executive Office of the President. The White House Office of Presidential Personnel (PPO) maintains data but does not make them publicly available.
The public has an interest in knowing the political appointees serving and this information would facilitate congressional oversight and hold leaders accountable. As of March 2019, no agency in the federal government is required to publicly report comprehensive and timely data on political appointees serving in the executive branch. OPM is positioned to maintain and make political appointee data publicly available on a timely basis but is limited in its ability to provide comprehensive data. PPO has more comprehensive data but may not be positioned to publish data on a recurring basis. Ultimately, it is a policy decision as to which agency is best positioned to report comprehensive and timely data on political appointees.
All three agencies GAO reviewed generally used appropriate internal controls to ensure they met basic ethics program requirements, though two of the agencies could take actions to strengthen their ethics programs.
- The Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Interior (Interior), and the Small Business Administration (SBA) all have procedures for administering their financial disclosure systems. HHS and Interior had procedures for providing initial ethics training as required beginning in January 2017. Prior to February 2019 SBA did not have written procedures for initial ethics training and did not adequately document political appointees' training dates. SBA's written procedures now reflect the requirements of initial ethics training and SBA developed a tracking sheet to indicate appointees completed training. GAO will assess the implementation of the tracking sheet to confirm the process is sufficient for documenting appointees' completion of initial ethics training.
- Interior's ethics program has human capital and workforce continuity challenges. Interior reported that four out of 14 full-time positions were vacant. Interior officials attributed the vacancies to a recent transformation of the ethics program and prioritizing the staffing at individual bureaus such as the National Park Service. However, vacancies affected the ethics program's ability to properly document policies and procedures as well as file and review financial disclosure forms. According to Interior officials, steps are being taken to address vacancies and document policies and procedures. However, GAO found that a more strategic and documented approach would enable Interior to better manage human capital, fill key positions, and maintain institutional knowledge.
Why GAO Did This Study
Federal agencies' ethics programs seek to prevent conflicts of interest and safeguard the integrity of governmental decision-making.
GAO was asked to review compliance with ethics requirements for political appointees in the executive branch. This report examines the extent to which (1) existing data identify political appointees serving in the executive branch, and (2) selected agencies use internal controls to reasonably ensure that their ethics programs are designed and implemented to meet statutory and regulatory requirements.
GAO reviewed available data on political appointees. GAO also reviewed three case study agencies selected to provide a range in agency size and number of political appointees. GAO reviewed ethics documentation for a nongeneralizable sample of political appointees at the three agencies at any point between January 2017 and 2018 and interviewed officials from the agencies and two non-governmental organizations.
Congress should consider legislation requiring the publication of political appointees serving in the executive branch. GAO also recommends three actions: SBA should document that training was completed; Interior should conduct more strategic planning for its ethics workforce and document ethics program policies and procedures. SBA neither agreed nor disagreed with GAO's recommendation, but provided documentation that partially addresses the recommendation. Interior agreed with GAO's recommendations.
Matter for Congressional Consideration
|Congress should consider legislation requiring comprehensive and timely information on political appointees serving in the executive branch to be collected and made publicly accessible. (Matter for Consideration 1)||On December 23, 2022, the president signed the Periodically Listing Updates to Management Act of 2022 (the PLUM Act of 2022) into law as part of H.R. 7776, the James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023. This law directs the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to establish and maintain a public website containing information on each political appointee position in the federal government, including vacant positions. For each position, the law directs that the website include: the name of the individual occupying the position (if any); the name of the agency in which the position is located; and the level, grade, or rate of pay, among other information. The law requires executive branch agencies, including the Executive Office of the President, among other agencies to provide any information on political appointees that the Director of OPM determines necessary to establish and maintain the website. The head of each agency is required to provide updated information on the political appointee positions and the individuals occupying them on an annual basis. Establishing such a process for maintaining and publishing comprehensive data on political appointees on a recurring basis will promote transparency, facilitate congressional oversight, and hold leaders accountable.|
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Small Business Administration||The Administrator of the Small Business Administration should implement procedures to track and verify that required employees complete initial ethics training and that completion of this training is documented. (Recommendation 1)|
|Department of the Interior||The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Departmental Ethics Office, in conjunction with the Chief Human Capital Officer, to develop, document, and implement a strategic workforce planning process that aligns with its ongoing departmental reorganization and that is tailored to the specific needs of the ethics program. As part of this process, Interior should monitor and assess the critical skills and competencies that its ethics program needs presently and is projected to need in the future. (Recommendation 2)|
|Department of the Interior||The Secretary of the Interior should ensure that the department's ethics program policies and procedures are documented and easily accessible to program staff. (Recommendation 3)|