TCS Daily

Turbo-Appointee: Software For The Cost Conscious Nominee

By John C. Fortier - January 29, 2001 12:00 AM

The din surrounding John Ashcroft, Linda Chavez and Gail Norton may leave the misimpression that only a few controversial nominees have difficulties with the appointments process. In reality, the system is broken.

Even the cabinet members who were confirmed quickly have horror stories to tell. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reportedly spent in excess of $100,000 in legal and accounting fees, just to fill out the maddeningly complex financial disclosure forms. And the real trouble lies ahead with the hundreds of lower level appointees who will not get front page coverage, but who will be subject to intrusive background checks, long delays, and great expense and heartache in filling out those forms.

Few Americans realize the extent of the problem and how it has worsened over the past 40 years. The average nominee in the Kennedy administration took office 2½ months after the inauguration. But each subsequent presidency has seen this timeframe lengthen so that the average nominee under Clinton had to wait nearly nine months before taking office.

It is not as if we do not know the problems. Study group after study group has identified them. Many potential appointees are scared away from public service by the prospect of a public airing of their personal lives, a full field FBI background check; the need to disclose and sometimes divest themselves of their assets; a Senate confirmation that could drag on for months, and the insane forms.

Despite a broad agreement on the problems and a long list of sensible solutions, only small improvements have been made to the process. The primary reason for such resistance to reform is the large number of parties and institutions with a stake in the process. Take for example the infamous forms. A typical nominee who requires Senate confirmation fills out forms for the White House, the FBI, the office of Government Ethics, and at least one Senate committee. Each asks for financial information, but some want financial information about the nominee, some about the nominee and spouse, some about dependent children. Some want the assets listed in categories according to their value. Other forms ask for an overall net worth. Terry Sullivan of the James A. Baker Institute has calculated that the average nominee is asked 234 Questions. Of those 8 percent are identical questions and a full 42 percent ask for the same type of information, but require it in different formats.

There is a simple solution to the forms mess. Make them uniform. Ask for information in one format and share it across the various institutions. This eminently sensible recommendation has been around for years, but there has been little progress. In fact, the forms have been more complex as new "scandals" (e.g. nannygate) are uncovered and additional questions are added to address them. Those in charge of an agency, wing of the White House, or Senate committee do not see the whole of the problem, and they are reluctant to give up control of which information is requested.

Given the resistance to change by so many parties, a project I manage has come up with an end run around the complexity of the forms. If we can`t get uniformity in the forms, maybe technology can help.

The Transition to Governing Project ( of the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution and the Hoover Institution, and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, commissioned a group led by Sullivan to develop something akin to Turbo Tax for presidential appointees.

The software asks for basic information, shoots that information out to all of the forms, and walks the nominee through unique questions. At the end, the nominee can print out all of the forms for submission (the technology is also here for online filing when the government allows it in the future). The software is nearly ready and should be complete as soon as the various institutions make their final decisions on the content of this year`s forms.

So, if you see somewhat less concerned faces on the nominees for assistant secretaryships, perhaps it will be due to this software. With some luck, it might inspire White House aides and committee chairs to simplify and harmonize their forms. And if it succeeds in bringing some rationality to the forms, maybe the powers that be will tackle other problems such as the FBI checks, Senate holds or our investigation culture. There is plenty to be done.


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