Tis’ the season for giving. However Federal employees have been presented with reasons to be more careful. This is because, for the first time in about 25 years they have a new set of guidelines and rules concerning accepting gifts from external sources.
The general rule of thumb is still in place; Federal employees may agree to a voluntary gift within the $20 limits in most instances. An employee is however not allowed to accept a gift from the same person when it is more than $50 in a single calendar year. The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) is pushing all federal employees to strive for a greater standard with the new guidelines.
The final rule, which was published by the OGE on Nov. 18, upgrades gift acceptance rules and policies which have not been changed since it was made in 1992. Read the Federal Register publication here.
According to OGE, workers are urged to consider whether accepting a particular gift will raise questions about their impartiality or integrity before receiving any gift.
It is important to point out official definition of what constitutes a gift according to the OGE;
A “gift” is defined to mean anything which is of monetary value, and mainly includes local travels, transportation, meals, and lodgings, whether provided by purchase of ticket, in-kind, advance payment or reimbursement after the expense has been incurred. From the definition, it can be noted that gifts do not always have to be just meals and can include a whole lot of other things.
The agency then listed some points that should be considered by any Federal employee before deciding to accept an otherwise permissible gift. They include:
• Whether the gift an employee is offered has a high market value.
• Whether the timing of the gift creates the impression that the donor intends to influence a particular government action.
• Whether the donor has interests which can affect the employee in performing official duties.
• Whether receiving such a gift would give the donor “irregular access.”
• Whether accepting the gift might make the employee feel a sense of obligation to the donor.
• Whether someone, anyone at all might question the employee’s impartiality.
OGE consulted with the Office of Personnel Management and Justice Department, as well as several agency ethics officials to carve out the proposed rule. The new guidelines combine the existing official standards and a great portion of the fourteen general principles of government ethics.
OGE Director Walter Shaun stated:
“The best approach is the rules-based and values-based. Employees are expected to abide by the rules which prohibit them from accepting some gifts. We are now urging them to reach for the highest standard.”
For example, a Peace Corps employee who’s duty is to purchase office supplies accurately is offered a lunch by a vendor after notifying him of his organization’s various new products.
“The employee is concerned that a reasonable person may question their impartiality if they accept the free lunch. This is because the timing of the gift (free lunch) suggests the donor’s intention might be to influence an official action which will substantially affect the performance of the employee’s duties.”
In the example, the employee decided not to accept the lunch offer even when accepting the lunch would not have violated any existing official ethics law.
Other examples of specific dos and dont’s are detailed in the seventeen-page final rule. It received a lot of comments and reactions, some of which advocated that the agency should make efforts to increase the present threshold which is $20.
“While $20 may not purchase the type of meal it bought about 25 years ago when the regulation was first issued, no genuine argument has been made to prove that raising the benchmark will strengthen and increase the integrity of employees; rather it only allows them to receive expensive gifts frequently.” For this reason, the $20 is still ideal.
Another change to the law requires an employee to acquire a written permission before accepting free attendance to a widely attended conference or event. Specifically, agency ethics officers should explicitly consider whether allowing such employee attend the event would affect their decision-making the capabilities.
Federal employees who are invited to present agency information or give a speech at a sponsored event or conference can attend for free. However, employees are not allowed to participate in a party free of charge, even when they feel they might have the opportunity to discuss official stuff with many other attendees since their agency did not appoint them to present any federal information. Feds who give speeches at the events, person, may decide to accept the meal offer, provided it was also offered to all other presenters. The OGE is of the opinion that these meals tend to be beneficial to the agency since the employee will get the opportunity to interact with other presenters and participants, receive instructions and also get familiarized with program goals and changes.
“OGE further noted that provided a meal is also made available to all other presenters; it could not be considered as a separate gift for the personal gain of the employee.”
The new set of rules which provides a detailed list of the dos and don’t in regards to receiving these gifts will go into effect on January 1st 2017. The new regulations are expected put a new face to the service while pushing employees to attain the highest standard.
Read the full rules and print them here.