OGE working toward electronic filing of financial disclosure forms


Members of Congress aren’t the only ones to file publicly available personal financial disclosure forms; so do presidents, cabinet secretaries, high ranking officials, and others throughout the upper echelons of our government. Just as with the legislative branch, the public must be afforded the opportunity to determine whether administration officials have potential conflicts of interest.

The agency responsible for collecting these forms is the Office of Government Ethics (OGE); they collect paper forms SF 278 (which are maintained by OGE and available to the public) and disseminate paper OGE forms 450, which are filed by lower level employees, are not available to the general public, and are maintained by each employee’s agency.

OGE has been trying to get approval from the Office of Management and Budget to develop an electronic filing system for this data. Some of this data (that filed by those submitting forms SF 278), could presumably be gotten through the Freedom of Information Act, which in turn could be made into a searchable database that would give the public access to instant information on who in the executive branch owned what. OMB, which has been good in advancing online transparency in some areas, seems to have dropped the ball on this one.

Via the excellent IEC Journal comes this memorandum from OGE’s director, Robert I. Cusick:

At OGE’s recent National Ethics Conference, in Orlando, Florida, I discussed OGE’s plans for any continued involvement in the development of an executive branch-wide system for electronic filing of the public and confidential financial disclosure reports.

As some of you may know, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) informed OGE that its request to undertake an OMB sanctioned e-Gov Initiative for the development of an e-filing system for financial disclosure reports in the executive branch will not be approved. OGE considered the possibility of attempting to manage an informal non-OMB sanctioned e-Gov initiative, but rejected that approach because OGE has neither the finances nor staff resources to oversee such an uphill effort of a strictly voluntary nature without definite funding sources.

Instead, OGE decided to allow each agency to undertake its own development of an electronic filing process to use with either the public (SF 278) or confidential (OGE Form 450) reporting system.

Allowing each agency to develop its own process sounds like an invitation to data anarchy. To its credit, OGE seems to be trying to avoid that. It will be interesting to see whether OGE can get uniform data from all agencies, and whether that in turn will be made available to the public in an online form.