Dysfunctional…burdensome…ineffective…onerous…duplicative. These are all words that have been used to describe the massive amount of paperwork required of a political appointee. And, if you have been nominated to a position requiring Senate confirmation, there will be an additional detailed questionnaire from the committee with jurisdiction over your nomination.
A long line of Presidents, Senators, think-tanks, scholars, and experts in public administration have called for ways to speed up the confirmation process to get nominees on the job more quickly. We all recall September 11, 2001, the terrible day when terrorists attacked the nation. What is not often remembered is that President Bush did not have his national security team confirmed and at their jobs until at least six months after the inauguration. More recently, President Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury had to navigate the worst of the financial crisis without a number of the department’s critical appointees in place.
Further, the amount of paperwork and the length of the nomination and confirmation process, along with the risk of public embarrassment and potential toxic political environments, is thought to drive away some of the best qualified and most talented individuals from pursuing high-level government positions.
Recognizing the problems stemming from an unwieldy, lengthy, and uncertain confirmation process, Congress passed the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011, which exempted 169 appointments from being confirmed by the Senate. This should make additional Senate resources available to focus on the more than 1,100 remaining appointments requiring their attention.
The Act also established the Working Group on Streamlining Paperwork for Executive Nominations and directed it to seek ways to ease the paperwork burden on nominees and to develop a “smart form” designed to populate all the various questionnaires with a single answer provided by the nominee. This would help with some of the most fundamental challenges of the confirmation process, such as the fact that even one’s name had to be provided in different formats depending on the questionnaire.
As a former Director of the US Office of Personnel Management, I am a member of this Working Group, which is expertly chaired by Lisa Brown of the Office of Management and Budget. The Working Group is comprised of a bipartisan assembly of current and former government officials with expertise in the nominations process. The panel included representatives of every agency involved in the appointments process: the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, the Office of Personnel Management, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Office of Government Ethics.
With all of the varied points of view represented by the working group, it was surprisingly easy to conclude that the time has come to improve the confirmation process and to arrive at consensus on the following recommendations:
- Develop a set of core questions to be used by the Executive Branch and each Senate Committee, while permitting each agency or Committee to ask additional questions specific to their area of inquiry.
The core questions could cover biographical, suitability, and conflict of interest areas, such as: education; employment; publications; memberships; political activity; criminal charges; civil litigation or administrative and ethical proceedings; tax matters; financial assets, liabilities, and income.
Striving for such consistency would save time and help to avoid problems or delays for the nominee, resulting from an inadvertent misreading of similar yet slightly differing questions.
- Eliminate White House and Senate requests for financial information that is already disclosed to, and certified by, the Office of Government Ethics.
- Eliminate the White House Personal Data Statement that typically includes questions that are duplicative of those in other questionnaires. The Obama Administration has already done away with this requirement and the working group urges future administrations to follow suit.
- Executive Branch and Senate Committees should embark on an effort to review their respective questionnaires and, when appropriate, eliminate duplicate questions, align the requests so only one answer is required, and narrowly tailor the questions to elicit the specific information needed.
- Establish different levels of scrutiny and paperwork for part-time positions requiring Senate confirmation that do not have access to classified information.
- Finally, develop an electronic “smart form” which would allow a nominee to securely enter responses to questions one way, one time, and automatically populate these answers into every form required of the nominee.
It is important to note that such an electronic system, no matter how well designed, will only work if all parties agree to the set of core questions described above. Otherwise, the great potential of such a system will be lost, as it will be reduced to simply automating an already-broken system.
The time has come. Everyone involved in the nomination and confirmation process has acknowledged that the process must be streamlined and nominees must move through the process more expeditiously. The Working Group has offered a solid plan to launch the reform process and we eagerly await the reaction of the Executive Branch agencies and the Senate.