Government: Ethics & Transparency at the Federal Level (with Shelley Finlayson)

Government: Ethics & Transparency at the Federal Level (with Shelley Finlayson)

In this episode, U.S. Office of Government Ethics Chief of Staff & Program Counsel Shelley Finlayson talks with students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy about ethics and transparency within the executive branch of the federal government.

FEATURING Shelley Finlayson
June 4, 2021



In this episode, U.S. Office of Government Ethics Chief of Staff & Program Counsel Shelley Finlayson talks with students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy about ethics and transparency within the executive branch of the federal government.

About Shelley Finlayson:

Ms. Finlayson joined OGE in 2006, initially serving in roles related to OGE’s legislative affairs and budget programs. Early in her tenure at OGE, Ms. Finlayson was honored to be selected as a Brookings LEGIS Fellow, through which she served with the Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. She is also a member of the UCR School of Public Policy Advisory Board.

Learn more about Shelley Finlayson via’s+Chief+of+Staff+&+Program+Counsel

Podcast Highlights:

“We lead the program to ensure that public employees carry out the government responsibilities entrusted to them with impartiality.”

-       Shelley Finlayson on the topic of why the Office of Government Ethics was created.

“All of us are harmed when important government missions are derailed by ethics issues or violations and the public confidence is lost...”

-       Shelley Finlayson on the topic of the importance of transparency and public trust.

“The idea that someone who's an expert in a particular area is going to come and bring their expertise to the government, that's a good thing. What we don't want them to bring with them is financial ties.”

-       Shelley Finlayson on the topic of financial conflicts of interest.


Shelley Finlayson (U.S. Office of Government Ethics Chief of Staff & Program Counsel)


Maddie Bunting (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Chief Ambassador)

Johanna Arias (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Ambassador)

Music by:

C Codaine

Commercial Links:

This is a production of the UCR School of Public Policy:

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  • Government: Ethics & Transparency at the Federal Level (with Shelley Finlayson)

    Introduction: Welcome to Policy Chats, the official podcast of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside. I’m your host, Maddie Bunting. Join me and my classmates as we learn about potential policy solutions for today’s biggest societal challenges.


    Joining us today is US Office of Government Ethics, Chief of Staff and Program Council, Shelley Finlayson. My fellow classmate, Johanna Arias, and I chatted with Miss Finlayson about transparency and ethics within the executive branch of the federal government. 


    Maddie Bunting: Miss Finlayson, you are the Chief of Staff and Program Council at the US Office of Government Ethics, also known as OGE. You previously served with the oversight of Government Management Subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. You are also a member of the UCR School of Public Policy Advisory Board. Thank you so much for being here today. 


    Shelley Finlayson: Thank you. Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm thrilled to be here. 


    Maddie Bunting: Before we jump in, would you mind sharing with our audience just the overall mission and purpose of the US Office of Government Ethics, as well as your role as chief of staff and program Council. 


    Shelley Finlayson: Sure, I'd be happy to. So the United States Office of Government Ethics was created in 1978 by the Ethics and Government Act and that was part of post-Watergate reforms to the executive branch. So we're an anti-corruption agency and were charged with preventing conflicts of interests on the part of officers and employees of the federal executive branch. People get a little confused. We don't oversee Congress or the judiciary, it's just a big enough job with the executive branch. And so we're really part of the foundation of public service. We're trying to ensure that public services of public trust and that federal executive branch employees place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws and ethical principles above their own private gain. So there's a lot of aspects of ethics in the executive branch. That's sort of our important piece. And as leaders of the program were implemented in more than a 140 executive branch agencies that have millions of federal employees. So we lead the program to ensure that public employees carry out the government responsibilities entrusted to them with impartiality, and then they serve as good stewards of public resources. So kind of an easy way to think about it is that when that government employees that's down to do their job, we want them thinking about the public interests, not their own financial interests. Now what would benefit them, their family, or those close to them. So we're looking to prevent those conflicts. If that fails, then we support other entities in investigating and enforcing the laws in that case. So as for my role of chief of staff, I'm the agency's senior career official. So I direct our overall operations and finances. I'm also our lead counsel. I supervise the OGE executives and managers. And then as program council, there are a lot of hats. I lead a division that's responsible for all of our strategic planning, coordinating outreach to the public, international audiences, Congress and others, providing expert advice and training to agency ethics officials who implement our program across the government, carrying out initiatives such as the Executive Branch wide IT systems, something I never thought I would lead. And providing agencies specific legal support and managing our budget, performance, legislative and international programs. 


    Johanna Arias: You know, in the United States Office of Government Ethics, it's illustrated that you lead and oversee the ethics in the expansive executive branch, as you mentioned, is it possible that you could expand on how exactly you and your colleagues prevent potential conflicts of interest? You know, in order to solidify that government decisions are free of any bias? 


    Shelley Finlayson: Sure. I'll say a little bit more about the range of the work that we do. So we talked about preventing conflicts of interest and the appearance of conflicts of interests that stem from sort of employee's financial interests. It's also their business relationships, personal relationships, worrying about the misuse of their official position, their official time, public resources, and the receipt of gifts. So we have rules, policies, and practices that address all of these areas with regard to employees when they're carrying out their jobs. And because we're a prevention program, we help new leaders and employees understand their obligations when they're coming in as public servants so that they can meet the expectations and provide ethical service. And the vast majority of them do that all the time. So more specifically, we devise and advise on rules of conduct that touch all of those millions of employees in those 140 executive branch agencies. We train about 5,000 ethics officials who carry out the program in those agencies then give that advice directly and training to those employees more directly. We oversee a system of financial disclosure that touches a thousand of the top positions you'd think of, cabinet secretaries, etc., as well as 25000 executives across government and about three to four thousand other filers who disclose their interests, so financial interests, so we can identify those potential conflicts. We also monitor and make sure agencies have strong programs and that senior leaders are complying with their, with the laws and commitments. And we also have a unique role in the presidential transition which we are carrying out right now with the presidential appointments process in the Senate confirmation process, as well as the outreach I mentioned and making thousands of ethics documents publicly available so the public can understand and see what's going on with their government. 


    Johanna Arias: I'm just, I'm just blown away by the amount of work that OGE really does. And, you know, I really don't think people understand the magnitude that is OGE, you know, especially before coming into this podcast today, some information that I was not aware of.


    Shelley Finlayson: We say we're tiny but mighty. We couldn't do it without all the ethics dedicated ethics officials in those agencies who are implementing our program. So a shout out to them because every day they're facing those front-line challenges and really tough questions from very senior officials and federal employees every day. 


    Maddie Bunting: Wow, yes, It's so important and to think so much goes on, as you mentioned, behind the scenes with the presidential transition that the public is just, myself included, completely unaware of. Yes. You know, these Cabinet members need to be informed and trained on, you know, what they can and can't do in the ethical stance. You've mentioned, OGE leads and oversees the Executive Branch Ethics Program through various actions including making and interpreting ethics laws and regulations. Just as a public policy student, I'm interested in what this process looks like and what policies are already in place?


    Shelley Finlayson: So I think the way to understand that best is probably two prongs. So at the policy level of speaking to the policy students out there. So the concern might arise that there isn't an adequate either requirement or Prohibition right? On the federal workforce or top-level officials maybe in some instance. And there's conduct happening that's, well, permissible right now that shouldn't be or there's some concern we want to address. In that case, typically what would happen is Congress will get involved in a new statute, right? Might be, might be past, we might be involved in the development of that. Or Congress may independently decide that there needs to be new requirements. That happened actually several years ago. There was interest in more real-time financial reporting of people's transactions. So certain transactions like what were they buying and selling while they were doing their jobs. And so the law was changed to require more disclosure and transparency with regard to those transactions and reporting of them. So we then come in to implement that, right. The executive branch charged with implementing, faithfully executing the laws. So we develop regulations. So we go through a notice and comment rulemaking process. So open to the public in the Federal Register, lots of comments come in. There's a revision or a proposed rule and feedback comes into that rule. And then there's revisions to the rule and then a final rule is published. And once that happens, then it's our job to help ensure that there's training. The ethics officials can implement that in their agency. That there's training and resources for them, for employees. And that the change that's necessary actually happens and hits the ground with regard to the federal workforce. So that's kinda how the policy side would work. Also just kinda understanding how the process looks, kinda what's in place now. Talked a little bit about senior officials. But if we just plot through a kind of a quick lifecycle of a senior federal official, that kinda helps us understand. So when a senior official entering, they're going to have to provide detailed personal financial information about their holdings, their spouses holdings, positions, et cetera. And then they have to develop a plan to resolve the conflicts of interests with their job that they would be coming into. That's displayed by what they've said about their interests. So right. It's the nexus of what job duties are you going to have to conduct and what holdings do you have that might create a conflict. And you might be doing something that would affect your financial interests. So all that information and what steps they're going to take to resolve those conflicts go to the Senate while they're considering confirming the person. That's part of the package of key information that goes up about the person when the Senate is considering confirming them. If they are confirmed and they enter their position, they immediately, nearly immediately, get a briefing on ethics so that they understand what they can and cannot do. They begin to take the steps they've promised to take, to sell things, to resign from positions, to recuse, so in other words, to not act on certain matters if they have holdings that would conflict. They also have an ongoing obligation to be an ethical leader in their organization and to support the ethics program in the agency where they're serving, as well as ongoing requirements to file financial disclosure, continually, keep updating that information, get annual training. And then while they're serving, they might have ethical concerns or issues that surface in their job. Someone might offer them a gift and they don't know what to do. Can they accept this gift? Can they not? Are they in a high level position? Does it look bad? Is it actually forbidden or does it just appear, you know, about? So that's why they go to their ethics official and their agency and that person is going to give them advice and counseling and really help them work through that issue. So it really is a prevention program. We don't want the person to make the mistake and get in trouble. We want them to understand when there might be a red flag. Come ask for help, and then we'll help them resolve that situation. And then rules follow them out when they're leaving government as well. So they get counseled, they file a termination report when they're leaving, again, disclosing their financial interests. But also they are counseled on the kind of influence that can't reach back once they've left government and impermissibly influenced the agency where they worked or depending on their level. So the rules continue, reached them even, even beyond serving in government. And so it's kind of interesting to understand kinda the whole lifecycle of what someone experiences with regard to the requirements. 


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    Johanna Arias: As you mentioned as well, you know, your office works to ensure that public servants and at all levels remain free from even the appearance of conflicts of interests. What could appear as a gray area? Are there ever times of gray area? 


    Shelley Finlayson: That’s a great question. Lots of gray, right? The world is full of it, but certainly in this area too. So protecting the public trusts depends on the actions of millions of officials every day putting the interests first, last, and always. And it isn't always simple and straightforward or intuitive necessarily. The criminal conflict of interest laws that we’re involved with draw some bright lines and they have to, because there are criminal penalties that's obviously very serious. So an official taking an action in order to financially enrich him or herself could bring criminal penalties on the person. So those are pretty clear and there's a lot of caution around those rules. The actions that might injure the public trust that don't rise to the level of criminal violations are a little bit tricky or gray or as you put it, for situations where an employee's actions might benefit a friend or a former colleague. The ethics rules prescribe a procedure for ethics review so that an ethics official at the agency helps the employee determine if there's an appearance concern. Would a person look at this and be concerned about the action the person that then took. If so, then the employee should probably sit the matter out, not participate, not do that aspect of their job. But we also have the principles of ethical conduct which are pretty broad and help guide employees overall in protecting the public trust. Well, sections about gifts, seeking employment, representing endorsing using your position. So we're giving lots of guideposts, but of course there's a lot of nuance and even this many decades later, There's a lot of refinement and new situations that arise. And that's what we're here for. We help ethics officials when they have new questions, novel questions, and sometimes new policies need to be developed or new regulations need to be written in order to address the things that are surfaced. So we really overall hope that the sense of public service being a public trust is really coming to life in the rules and requirements.


    Maddie Bunting:  I think the public's trust is very important. I know it's a very large part of the OGE. And when ethics are questioned, agencies and individuals can be…. scandal can follow and that very trust can be eroded. During your time at the Office of Government Ethics, have you witnessed this? And if so, what actions were taken to regain trust and increase public confidence? 


    Shelley Finlayson: It's so true, you know, all of us are harmed when important government missions are derailed by ethics issues or ethics violations and the public confidence is lost. That could be everything from the fairness of a contract to a major program, right? That affects millions and millions of members of the public. Most items or scandals that are deemed ethics scandals are a mixed bag of a whole bunch of things happening at once. And a lot of them are sensitive and more complex than they appear. But an example I can share, because it's quite old and it's very public because currently, obviously, I can't talk about anything that we're working on now. But there was an organization called the Minerals Management Service, which was part of the Department of Interior. And they had a huge scandal erupt in the autumn of 2008. Employees, well, there were a lot of things going on, but among them, employees were taking gifts, including drugs and financial benefits from people in organizations who were supposed to be being regulated by them to ensure revenue to the government, safety, and a whole range of things. The inspectors general report who investigated this estimated that the corruption cost taxpayers $4.4 million in uncollected or improperly collected fees alone, and never mind the other damage. So they'd even made a formal request to the Department of Interior to be exempted from the standards of ethical conduct because they just wanted it to be known that they were operating outside the standards of public service. So it was a big, big scandal. And to regain trust, the then Secretary of the Department of Interior reached out to OGE and asked for our help to rebuild that public confidence in the organization and help the department move on and the public move on. So we did a deep dive, produced an extensive list of concrete actions that agency leaders can take to strengthen the public's trust. The department took that list and ran with it. They implemented virtually all of the steps that we suggested. And the Department of Interior program today is one of the model programs in one of the stronger programs in the executive branch. So that's a very public example of where something really went off the rails and we're prevention programs so we want to get ahead of that. So as said before, we don't want us to get to the point of having such an awful scandal occur. But when it does, we really work hard in a whole variety of ways to promote transparency, make sure we're conducting oversight, educating stakeholders, and providing agencies like in this case, the support they need to stay on track or to get back on track. And we also publish a summary of prosecution of ethics laws every year. So we show the potential consequences of violating the ethics laws. And everyone can kind of see that there really are consequences to these things. 


    Maddie Bunting: I do have a follow-up and I understand you may not be able to answer it. But I thought, you know, we would take this opportunity. I'm sure the audience is curious if there have been any challenges in recent times, this could be vague, where your office has seen conflicts of interests in business or financial transactions. Is this something that's ongoing or are they kind of large, like the example you just gave where it almost took up an entire department?


    Shelley Finlayson: Well, so most people, backing up on the idea of a conflict of interests, most people who come into the executive branch with private sector experience are going to have conflicts of interests initially right coming in. And if our program didn't exist to identify them and require officials to resolve them, they'd remain. But the idea that someone who's very expert in a particular area is going to come and bring their expertise to government, that's a good thing, but we don't want them bringing with them is ties, Financial ties. If they're going to be making decisions that would enrich themselves or affect things appropriately. So the process isn't easy because it involves high-level incoming officials and a whole level of incoming officials. But I'm talking about the presidentially appointed senate confirmed folks. They have to publicly disclose really sensitive personal financial information and take sometimes personally costly steps to resolve those conflicts of interests. So while there isn't a specific example, I'll talk about the fact that we are in a post presidential election time, a lot of this work is happening right now. So all those senior positions of government are vacant, right when an election happens, and that's a vulnerable time for our country. We need people leading the important departments who execute the laws across government. And so our work gets even more complicated. The financial holdings are complex. It's difficult. It's not pleasant for the person going through the process, but it has to be carried out quickly because we need to get people in situated so that they can move or be potentially be confirmed by the Senate to move into those roles. So thinking about how that process works, OGE with the White House and Ethics officials in the agencies are carefully analyzing those financial holdings that people disclose. And it takes multiple rounds to get them to be able to fully disclose. It's not intuitive what you need to fill it out on the form, it's very complex. Then you're figuring out what are the potential conflicts. And then we're writing up what's called an ethics agreement, a detailed description that the person's going to sign, committing to all the steps they are going to take to resolve those conflicts that have been identified. That might be selling a whole bunch of your stock, that might be resigning from all your outside boards and positions. You may not be able to work on key aspects of your job for a while or for the entire time you're serving which, you know, people may not be happy about that either. But all of that, you know, both of those documents go to the Senate when they're considering the person and then if they're confirmed, we require them to certify to us in writing They've taken all of those steps to resolve all those potential conflicts. And all those documents are publicly available on our website. So you can see the financial disclosure report would look like this person has tons of conflicts. They own oil stock. How can they be working at the department you knowDepartment of Energy? Well, the ethics agreement shows you they're going to have to get rid of all that. They're going to have to resign from those positions. And then that certification shows you they did all that. So if somebody is concerned, there's an awful lot they can see about those senior leaders and what steps they've taken to resolve those potential conflicts of interests. So sometimes things don't go exactly right to your point. We might discover later that the financial disclosure of filing wasn't completely correct or that they sold part of what they were supposed to sell, but they didn't sell all of it. They're still holding something that's conflicting. And if that happens, we use all the tools available to us. So we asked the agency to investigate. Was there a violation? Did the person take an action that benefited them or actually not to benefit it affected their financial interests. If so, they need to report it to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution. We also direct the official to finish selling or taking whatever action they were supposed to take to come back into compliance. And then we do all of that in public letters so that we can help rebuild trust, right? If somebody is given this situation is playing out, what happened. So we try to use transparency to help the public regain confidence when one of these situations emerges. We always want to prevent this again on the front end as much as possible, but sometimes it's inadvertent. And sometimes as anywhere you're going to have sometimes bad actors who just aren't going to listen even when you explain to them how.


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    Johanna Arias: It's clear that OGE believes strongly in transparency as we've mentioned. As we enter this new digital age, do you believe that technology plays a role in transparency today? Has social media played a big part in your role at  OGE?


    Shelley Finlayson: Absolutely. So I mean, OGE’s Website is its main communication tool and most important resource for not only our stakeholders, which includes the media, the public, international audiences, but also agency ethics officials who are implementing the program. It's really a key resource for them to do their job. We just this last September completely redesigned our website to improve public access to ethics documents and to make it much easier to understand the data that's there. And for the public to interpret what they're seeing, and be able to use the information. And I think a perfect example of this is it. There's a statute requires that we collect a little bit of information before we give certain public financial disclosure forms out. It used to be that of course, that was paper or you would come to our office in Washington DC in person and inspect the record right in this little tiny room that we had or you would mail it something to us and we, you know, we would get it and process, copy things and mail it back. It's now an online electronic form. I mean, you can still send this paper if you want to, but it's now an electronic form that you can fill out, zap to us. You can get their records back to you electronically. So that was sort of phase 2. And now with our new website, you can see all the documents that are, you used have to know the person's name before you could ask for someone's record. You can now see transparently on our website whose documents are available to you, what documents they are, where you would go to get them, how to get them. It links to the electronic form. You fill that out, you get it. And some of the materials are actually just directly posted. So that's been huge. You could just see in one little process, right? How technology has increased transparency. And to your point about social media, we do use social media. And other tools to try to reach the public, like you're saying, we don't know you exist. It's very hard for a small agency. And if all things are going well, no one does know we exist because we're preventing bad things from happening! And everybody is doing their jobs like they're supposed to be. And, you know, but I hear both of you. It's kind of important. It makes people feel better to know that the system exists, this program exists. There are people out there looking at these things, trying to make sure that people in these positions are serving the public and not their own interests. And so we really have tried to use social media and other technology tools to make things more available. We post almost everything we do on our website, from training videos to oversight reviews, our correspondence with Congress International materials. And we really have adopted a philosophy that public availability is critical to the American public's understanding and confidence. We worked with the media a lot more directly. Now, they’re big amplifiers, so we've tried to educate them. And Congress, both congressional staff. So they really have a handle on what we're doing. And also that they can hold us accountable if we're not doing as good a job as we should be doing as well. 


    Maddie Bunting: As we close up this interview, you are a UCR Alumna and so I would be remiss not to ask you about your personal professional career. If you may ,how did UCR or Rutgers University or Georgetown University Law prepare you for your professional career and help you become the professional career woman that you are today. If you could give any advice or help any of our listeners is going through that process right now. I know we would personally, I would love to hear. 


    Shelley Finlayson: Thank you very much. Yes, I am a proud, proud Highlander, very much. UCR did an outstanding job of reinforcing my desire to serve and pushing me to bring intellectual rigor, determination, and compassion to my career in public service. I came from a family of public servants, but I was the first one to go to college. And UCR really supported my advancement in my journey. And I was not just fortunate to study and have the opportunity for the intellectual piece and what one expects to get from, directly from education. But actually to engage in policy work while I was at UCR. So I had a city council internship that was extremely hands-on. I had a congressional internship here in DC where I fell in love with DC and have resided for almost 20 years. I came here, fell in love and stayed in terms of falling in love with the city and federal work. So I also worked at a small law firm connected through UCR. So I got exposure to the law and that helped me decide ultimately the path I wanted to take. So all three were tremendous influences and directly affected the direction and steps that I took on my career. So I've worked at the local level that was influenced by, you know, my study experience. Worked again for congress twice, um, and then ultimately also had a legal career and worked at a firm and then now senior counsel. So all those things were very influential. And similarly in graduate school, having an externship and then at Georgetown is excellent with law clinics though I had a legislative law clinic where I practiced on the hill and while I was in law school. So all of that helped teach me resilience and really forging a path to public policy. And I'm ultimately doing, I really am living a public policy career. So it really encouraged me, I think, to stay the course and despite the challenges in many ways, because of the challenges and convincing me that the nation-state, the city, my community, all those people need dedicated public servants, which is why I'm such a impassioned person about the quality of public services, right? And protecting public service and the integrity of it. So it's really a special calling. And I think for those folks out there who are listening, you have a chance to impact thousands of people's lives for the good on a daily basis. I mean, what other profession really allows you to reaffirm the values of honesty, of respect, fairness, equity, and compassion. Every day, we get to show up and create and live our democratic ideals in our jobs. And that's pretty, it's pretty special. So I just encourage anyone thinking about that or on that path to stick with it. It's not always easy. Doesn't always pick the best. You know, it's long hours sometimes, but it's worth it. It's definitely worth it. 


    Maddie Bunting: Wow, I cannot have said it any better. As someone aspiring to go into the public service field, that was just really wonderful to hear Miss Finlayson. And I wanted to thank you so, so, so much for taking the time, everything you shared was so insightful. And I am just so truly I'm so impressed by your career and all the work you do on a daily basis. And I wanted to thank you for your service, so thank you for joining us today. 


    Shelley Finlayson: Thank you for inviting me again. Thank you both. 

    Outro: This podcast is a production of the UC Riverside School of Public Policy. Our theme music was produced by C Codaine. I'm Maddie Bunting, till next time.