February 24, 2020

Challenges in the presidential appointment process

By Kristine Simmons and Kayla Shanahan

America is “big” by most measures, from the size of our population and land mass, to the boldness of our ideas and our global influence.  The challenges facing our government are big too. Delivering services to over 300 million Americans and leading the free world require great talent and exceptional leaders in public service. 

The opportunity to serve the American people is an honor, and those in Senate-confirmed presidential appointments assume some of the toughest jobs in government.  They oversee billions of dollars in federal spending and thousands of employees, are accountable to the president and to Congress and work under the scrutiny of the public and the media. It is challenging work, but uniquely rewarding; many current and former federal leaders say that public service is both the hardest and the best professional experience of their careers.  Few opportunities exist outside of government to work with the best and brightest minds on a mission that matters to thousands – and even millions – of people at home and around the world.

The public benefits when individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences use their talents for the public good – so it should be easy for those who want to serve to do so.  Unfortunately, it’s not. The appointments process is difficult to navigate even for experienced government insiders; for individuals who are coming from academia, the private or nonprofit sectors, it is baffling.  Government loses out when the process discourages people with needed expertise, new perspectives on long standing problems, and solutions from outside of the public sector from serving.

The appointment process for Senate-confirmed positions is longer, more public, and more onerous than ever. To date, 63 of President Trump’s nominees have removed themselves from consideration or had their nominations withdrawn, and some previously interested and highly qualified individuals will no longer consider a presidential appointment. Why?

  • Long wait time to start position: Most prospective appointees are expected to leave their pre-nomination jobs in the time between their nomination and confirmation, even when confirmation is not guaranteed and a start date is unknown. Though most nominees will eventually make it through the process – historically, the Senate confirmed over 98% of Cabinet appointees – the length of time from nomination through confirmation continues to increase, often for reasons unrelated to the nominee. In 2019, the average confirmation process lasted 136 days – limiting the pool of prospective candidates to only those who are willing and able to forego income for long stretches of time.
  • Arduous vetting process with limited support: Positions of public trust require a rigorous vetting process, and appropriately so.  But the process as it exists today is complicated by the risk of innocent mistakes and missteps. Candidates must complete hundreds of pages of paperwork with questions on their background, health, financial holdings, and personal life.  The online form SF-86 for background investigations is 127 pages, and just one of the forms required of nominees. While it is critical to vet candidates thoroughly, expectations seem out of step with the lives that many senior leaders live today. For example, prospective candidates must report the date of every encounter with a foreign associate going back five, ten or fifteen years, and sometimes all the way back to age 18. In today’s globalized world it is unrealistic to expect individuals to recall and document every interaction with a foreign associate years later. As a result, many candidates incorrectly complete or simply cannot accurately complete the necessary paperwork.
  • Financial implications for candidates: Candidates must provide highly detailed information about their financial holdings, tax filings, and business dealings. Many hire accountants and private attorneys out-of-pocket just to compile the necessary paperwork. Once their financials are reviewed, candidates and their families often are forced to divest assets of significant value, even though the candidate will likely only serve in that capacity for a short tenure. Several post-service obligations may further deter prospective appointees.
  • Highly publicized process for candidates and their families: Media coverage of executive branch appointments is higher than ever. While public officials expect to be in the spotlight, privacy no longer extends to their family members, who remain private citizens. Nominees endure public scrutiny, often at the professional and personal expense of themselves and their families.

Recruiting America’s top talent is critical to delivering a more effective government to the American people.  The Partnership for Public Service continues research on the pain points of the appointment process, providing recommendations for improvements to ensure that talented Americans are not deterred from serving our country as a presidential appointee.