The Office of Government Ethics has sent a memo to top agency leaders stressing that they are “ultimately responsible” for the ethical culture of their organizations and that “it is essential to the success of our republic that citizens can trust that your decisions and the decisions made by your agency are motivated by the public good and not by personal interests.”

“Your personal conduct sets a powerful example for the employees in your organization,” acting OGE director David Apol wrote, adding that “the public’s trust is not guaranteed. We must earn that trust every day, because the loss of that trust is catastrophic.”

The memo did not make a direct reference to ethical issues that have arisen in the Trump administration, such as the recent controversies over agency leaders using more expensive government aircraft when commercial flights were readily available. However, that message was implied by the timing and context of the memo and the fact that an acting director of a small agency would tell top political appointees that he is “deeply concerned that the actions of some in government leadership have harmed perceptions about the importance of ethics and what conduct is, and is not, permissible.”

He said they should model a “should I do it?” mentality versus a “can I do it?” mentality; include ethics themes in their speeches, memos and meetings of senior leaders; “get to know your ethics program, and ensure that it is staffed by qualified personnel and has sufficient resources”; “recognize and praise honorable service by employees in your agency” while stressing the consequences to the organization and its mission of unethical behavior; and “promote a safe culture for reporting misconduct.”