When Congress passed the 2008 Defense Authorization Bill, they included a new ethics provision which was designed to reduce the undue influence of former officials who left their government jobs for lucrative positions with DoD contractors. The provision is found in SEC. 847 (a) through (d).

(a) Requirement to Seek and Obtain Written Opinion.–

(1) Request.–An official or former official of the Department of Defense described in subsection (c) who, within two years after leaving service in the Department of Defense, expects to receive compensation from a Department of Defense contractor, shall, prior to accepting such compensation, request a written opinion regarding the applicability of post-employment restrictions to activities that the official or former official may undertake on behalf of a contractor.

This was a well intended effort on the part of Congress and addressed a concern which had been raised by many ethics watchdogs. DoD officials, particularly individuals with decision making powers or influence over contract allocation, could easily be perceived as engaging in unfair practices if they were rewarded with plush jobs at the private sector companies they oversaw. Similarly, they could use their connections with their old colleagues to stack the deck for future work. This new provision in the rules would require them to seek and obtain “written opinions” from the DoD which would clear up any such murky connections.

The requests and resulting ethics letters were to be maintained in a database which would be made available for review and oversight during future contract negotiations. Unfortunately, as Government Executive reveals this week, that database hasn’t been maintained in any coherent fashion, rendering it essentially useless.

The Defense Department is not tracking whether its employees are improperly leaving their government jobs for contractor positions in the private sector, according to a report released Tuesday.

The system for tracking outgoing senior employees who face restrictions in their post-government employment was so poorly maintained, the department’s inspector general said, the auditors could not even report the “reliable quantitative data” required by law.

While Congress has focused on mitigating undue corporate influence on the Pentagon that results from the revolving door between Defense and the companies with which the department contracts, the Pentagon’s inability to follow the new rules has compromised those efforts.

The DoD Inspector General’s office has come to the conclusion that they have been left with no “audit trail” and data that were “incomplete and not credible.”

There’s a worrying aspect to any government program which seeks to restrict the employment opportunities of individuals in the private sector, but these regulations aren’t closing the door to anyone having a job. If properly implemented, the system would simply shine some sunlight on the appropriations process and reveal cronyism while such decisions were being made. Since we’re talking about taxpayer dollars funding all of these operations, it’s information which clearly belongs in the public domain.

So why did the effort fail so badly? It doesn’t sound like corruption in this case so much as the inefficiency of the bureaucracy and a failure to apply the resources needed to put the system to good use. Having done some work in the contracting industry myself over the years, I can tell you that the hoops a company has to jump through in order to land a deal with the federal government are substantial and you’re required to provide all sorts of information, including the names and background of everyone who will be working on the project. If the required database was kept up to date (and anyone was actually checking it) it wouldn’t be much of a challenge to identify former DoD employees and determine if they had completed the ethics inquiry process.

That didn’t happen in this case… or at least not in a complete, efficient method. Fortunately, this is the sort of problem which could be fixed now that it’s been identified. Let’s all give this one some time and see if the IG report generates any corrective action on the part of the DoD.