1 September 2011

In a curious juxtaposition, websites this week have featured aspects of government ethics in the United States.

A Gallup survey rating public trust in 25 sectors of the economy found that Federal agencies are considered the least trustworthy. Other sectors viewed most negatively are real estate, healthcare, banking, oil and gas, and the legal profession. Federal agencies were rated positively by only 17% of respondents. The figure has continually declined from a 41% rating in 2003.  By contrast, the computer industry has a 72% positive rating.

Next week the US Office of Government Ethics will re-launch its website.  OGE, with 80 staff, is an exceptionally small agency by Federal Government norms.  Its role is to ensure agency decision-making is not influenced by personal interests.  It does this through training programmes and reviewing compliance with integrity standards. Last year it reviewed the Interior Department at the time of the BP oil spill when there were widespread reports that the department’s staff accepted gifts from the oil and gas sector, a sector now rated almost as untrustworthy as Federal agencies.

The OGE website is described as “ too packed with pages and columns of documents to demystify the rules of professional conduct.”  Simplified presentation may make material more accessible for the 300,000 civil servants targeted by its guidance.  The refreshed website, will carry reports of the ethics reviews conducted by OGE. This will obviate the need to request material under the Freedom of Information Act.

There is no specification of the survey definition of Federal agencies, but it is unlikely to include the armed forces.  In the US, the military rates among most trusted professions.   New Zealand Armed Forces find similar favour.  But yesterday’s news may have a substantial impact on perceived trustworthiness.  An former employee in the Army museum appeared in court on charges of thieving  more than $250,000 worth of medals gifted to the museum. Descendants of medal winners, whose decorations were among the thefts, trusted the museum (and indirectly the Army) to safeguard these symbols of service and sacrifice.  The Army is very apologetic, knowing the likelihood of a loss of public trust and confidence.