Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Government Ill Executed - Posts of Honor

In chapter 3 of A Government Ill Executed, Paul Light turns to the state of federal political appointees.

Unlike the civil service, political appointees come and go with different administrations, and generally serve at the pleasure of the President. They play an important role in the executive branch as intermediaries between the President and the unelected civil service who are on the front lines. As Light describes them, political appointees "play a central role is managing the chain of command, interpreting legislation, overseeing regulations, and faithfully executing the laws." Without a competent person in these roles, the business of the executive branch can slow or even come to a halt.

Light is concerned that the process by which political appointees are identified, recruited, appointed and, if necessary, confirmed is broken. What is needed is a "fast, simple and fair appointments process." What we have, however, has been best characterized as "nasty and brutish without being short." This is due to "needless forms, needless delays" and the sense by all involved that a candidate is "innocent until nominated." As a result, the management of the executive branch suffers as mediocre appointees fill these posts, or they remain unfilled for large amounts of time.


Light notes that extensive screening and many questionnaires appointees must fill out. They are unnecessarily time consuming, requiring the candidate to spend inordinate amounts of time locating every last address and phone number since college. Light estimates that a candidate will have had to answer 240 separate questions, including 61 on personal and family background, 32 on tax and finances, 35 on legal proceedings,7 on public and organizational activities and even one on the people they hired for child care.

Appointees are generally left to navigate these with little help from the White House. Outside help from lawyers and accountants must be paid for by the appointee. They then have to wait while overworked investigators from various federal agencies confirm their accuracy. The process keeps getting longer. President Kennedy took just two months to get his Senate confirmed appointments finished. The current President took nine.


Light does not discuss the Senate's confirmation process in much detail, which is too bad because it's every bit as bad. Senate committees have their own questionnaires, sets of interviews, etc. in preparation for a confirmation hearings. The hearing itself is generally a breeze in comparison to filling out the forms and going through the staff interview. Once that is completed, the committee needs to schedule a hearing, which requires Senators' attendance. Merely getting a confirmation hearing on the calendar can delay the appointments for months.

Lessons Learned

Light's research had revealed that appointees are most motivated by the honor and chance to serve their country. Further, they are motivated by the future leadership opportunities that holding a political appointment will provide. The federal government is unlikely to offer pay that is comparable to the private or even non-profit sectors. Presidents can provide more support for their appointees through the Office of White House personnel, which all too often doesn't act as if it really cares whether someone appointed ever takes the position. Forms and questionnaires can be streamlined.

Here, I'll add a few suggestions of my own, having staffed several confirmations in the Senate. The White House and Senate staff should devise uniform questionnaires to streamline the appointment process. Further, the number of appointees subject to Senate confirmation is ridiculous and it seems every time Congress creates a new position, the Senate insists it confirms it to gain leverage in negotiations with the White House even when the particular appointment isn't controversial. The President should agree to reduce the number of appointees (leaving more work to the civil service) in exchange for the Senate's agreeing to reduce the number of appointees subject to Senate confirmation.

I can dream, can't I?

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