The Office of Government Ethics is planning to make it easier for government employees to serve on non-profit boards. A variety of groups are supporting the proposal, suggesting that non-profit board membership is a necessary part of a well-developed career (especially for scientists), and that recruiting and retaining public servants is too difficult if they’re limited to strictly to their government role.
The conversation about this change, however, has ignored some of the inherent conflicts that exist when a government official serves as a board member. Most of the cited conflicts refer to “financial” conflicts of interest, and say that they are rare, and too insignificant a concern to justify restricting government officials. What those arguments ignore, however, are all the other potential conflicts that can arise from board membership. Being a member of a non-profit board isn’t just a matter of advising, it’s also a transfer of credibility, and a formal association between the personal reputation of the board member and the success (non-financial success) of the institutions on whose boards they serve.
If the government makes it far easier for officials to serve on non-profit boards, non-profits will face a strong incentive to offer credibility boosting positions to top officials, who share an incentive to gain a voice over outside groups who can validate their work. In other words, it will change board membership, and it will change what it means to be a civil servant serving as an independent, objective arbiter of public policy.
And that’s without considering financial conflicts of interest. Today’s AP story (inspired by Sunlight Reporting group reporting) demonstrates that this explicit conflict of interest isn’t as rare as some accounts would suggest.
OGE should reconsider the frequency and seriousness of conflicts of interest that arise from non-profit board membership. And they should also consider other conflicts of interest that arise when government officials serve multiple roles simultaneously.
If OGE ultimately decides that their ability to demand recusals and recognize conflicts of interest is a sufficient check on officials serving on non-profit boards, then they should create a new disclosure policy, and post, online, the non-profit board membership of all executive branch officials, so that the public can be the final judge of whether their multiple roles compromise their public duties.