Michael Froman has had an extraordinary career. After serving in the Department of the Treasury under President Clinton, he became the head of personnel for the 2008 Obama-Biden transition team and later served as a White House deputy national security advisor and as the U.S. Trade Representative. In this episode of Transition Lab, host David Marchick asks Froman for an inside look at the world of vetting, selecting and appointing key presidential personnel. They discuss how Froman got involved in transition planning, the lessons his experience holds for future administrations and President Obama’s personnel strategy.

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Read the highlights:

Marchick asked Froman how he got involved in the 2008 Obama-Biden transition.

Froman: “I had known President Obama from [Harvard] Law School. …And when he became senator, a group of us whom he had known either from law school or other places had helped … hire some of his initial staff. …When he decided to run for president, I offered to help him with the transition, in part because I wasn’t planning on going into government and thought that I could make a contribution by helping him with the personnel process.”

Marchick asked how potential nominees for President Obama’s Cabinet were selected.

Froman: “We’d look at the national security team, the economic team, the domestic policy team, the environment team and come up with lists of names of people who could fill potentially multiple positions. The approach was more to look at teams rather than individual positions. It wasn’t so much having five candidates for one job, but more of having 15 candidates for a handful of jobs. …It was more going out and looking for as many qualified, diverse candidates as possible so that the president would have maximum opportunity to … [put] together the Cabinet that he wanted.”

Marchick asked which personnel decisions took priority.

Froman: “His first decision was not a Cabinet position. It was the position of White House chief of staff and he chose Rahm Emanuel, which also then helped further the process because Rahm was very focused on both the Cabinet and the White House staff. …Because of the global financial crisis, there was a particular momentum for getting decisions around the economic team.”

Marchick asked whether the campaign staff jockeyed for jobs in the administration after the 2008 election.

Froman: “There certainly was an element of that, but people were actually engaged in pretty good behavior. …People [on the] campaign … of course had hoped to get into the administration, but there weren’t a lot of sharp elbows … [President Obama] had not been in Washington for years and years, and he didn’t have a list of a thousand people that he needed jobs for. …He was really quite open to meeting whoever was the the best candidate for the job.”

Marchick asked how successful candidates approached the vetting process for a position in the Obama administration.

Froman: “People who came in and said, ‘I am the greatest expert in this area, I have served the three of the last Democratic administrations and I am clearly the most qualified person for this position. Where do I fill out my employment forms?’ didn’t tend to [do] very well. …The more successful approach was to make clear that you were low maintenance; that you wanted to serve; that there were a variety of positions that you could envisage yourself doing; that you were not insistent on necessarily being the top person in any agency; [and] that you were willing to play whatever role the president-elect felt was appropriate.”

Marchick asked what lessons future administrations should take from the slower rate at which President Obama filled Senate-confirmed positions after his first year in office.

Froman: “One of the lessons of that is that it’s better to have somebody who is doing personnel during the transition into at least the first year of the administration—maybe into the first two years of the administration. Having that continuity would have been better in retrospect.”

Marchick asked why President Obama wanted to build a diverse Cabinet.

Froman: “The president had made clear he wanted an administration that looked like America, and we were committed to having a diverse Cabinet and sub-Cabinet … So one of our areas of focus was ensuring that the slates [of potential nominees] were as diverse as possible—whether it was racial diversity, ethnic diversity, gender diversity, among other attributes.”

Marchick asked Froman to discuss the advice he would offer presidential transition personnel planners.

Froman: “When you’re picking a team of Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials, one should be thinking about who [we are] putting in the pipeline who could succeed the Cabinet, and how do we make sure that they get the support and the training … to fill out their attributes so that they could step up be Cabinet officers as well. The one thing we don’t do terribly well in the federal government compared to some of other organizations, including in the private sector, is [think] about succession planning [and] how to prepare people to step up into the next position.

By Heather Samuelson

This post is part of the Partnership’s Ready to Serve series. Ready to Serve is a centralized resource for people who aspire to serve in a presidential administration as a political appointee.

The vetting process for senior presidential appointees can be opaque even for long-serving government officials. What an administration is looking for in a candidate is not always clear, and there’s always the fear of something disqualifying coming up during the process.

While the vetting process varies based on the administration and the position an individual is seeking, there are three key components for almost every political appointee. 

The security clearance process. All Senate confirmed roles, and a large number of non-Senate confirmed ones, require a security clearance.

The ethics clearance process. Jobseekers must complete a financial disclosure form that is reviewed by ethics officials to determine if their financial holdings conflict with the position they are seeking. In some cases, nominees may need to divest or place assets in a blind trust in order to assume the position.

Public records review and vetting interviews.  Administration officials, including the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, the White House Counsel’s Office and White House liaisons all have a role in the review process. 

During my time in the Obama administration, I oversaw the vetting of hundreds of appointees. Here is the advice I gave candidates before starting the process:

  1. Do your homework. The security clearance form (SF 86) and financial disclosure form (OGE 278e) can be found online. Review these forms early while you are still interviewing for the position. See if there are questions you are concerned about or if there is information that will be difficult to compile. If so, seek advice from PPO or the White House liaison.
  2. Disclose information early and truthfully. The vetting process is a two-way street. You have been selected for this role by the president, and the administration wants to see you succeed.  You should disclose anything you are concerned about early in the process, from that quirk in your taxes to any issues that may have landed you in court. Worse than failing to disclose, do not lie or gloss over difficult facts during the vetting process. The administration cannot help you if you don’t provide a full and accurate picture. Once you are nominated, the Senate, the press and the public will all do their jobs of reviewing your personal and professional record. At this point even seemingly small issues could become very public concerns for you and the administration.
  3. Be ready to answer questions about your personal and professional life. You will get asked detailed questions about your professional and personal life. Your finances will also be scrutinized. Some questions are designed to ensure you are not susceptible to blackmail. Others are to determine whether anything in your background could be disconcerting or embarrassing to you or to the administration.

Sometimes people who would be extraordinary public servants do not get through the vetting process.   It does not mean they are horrible people. It may be that their financial holdings caused too many conflicts for them to fully serve in the role, or that they had elements in their private life (or a close family member’s private life) they wanted to stay private.

The spotlight can be harsh for nominees and their loved ones. Making sure you and the administration can identify potential vulnerabilities before you are nominated is key—and why the vetting process exists.

Heather Samuelson serves as general counsel for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She previously served as chief counsel for the Clinton-Kaine Transition Team, as an assistant counsel in President Obama’s White House and as White House liaison for the Department of State.

By Tina Sung

This post is part of the Partnership’s Ready to Serve series. Ready to Serve is a centralized resource for people who aspire to serve in a presidential administration as a political appointee.

Every aspirant for a federal political appointment faces a chicken and egg problem. Should you begin working on your security and financial disclosure forms before you are offered a position or should you wait until you are offered a job? Does it seem presumptuous to fill out the forms too early? What if you never get an offer? Are you wasting your time?

At a minimum, one should become familiar with the forms. While you can’t complete and submit your information online until after you receive an offer, you can download or print the forms you will likely need, and begin filling out copies in advance of the election. If you wait until after the election to start the process of researching all your necessary personal and financial records, you may slow yourself down, and more importantly, you may be slowing down the administration you want to serve.

Filling out these forms can be tedious. Government experts estimate that it takes two to three hours to fill out the Questionnaire for National Security Positions (SF 86),  but in truth it will probably take much longer. This particular disclosure form is more than 100 pages. You will need to list every country you have visited for the past seven years (longer for certain positions). You will need to list every address you have had over the past seven years (again, possibly more), as well as contacts who knew you at each address. If you are appointed to one of the top positions in the government, you may need to go all the way back to when you were 18 years old. Don’t wait until the last minute – get a head start on this form.

What other forms should you prepare for in advance?

Unfortunately, there is not simple answer. The precise forms you need to fill out will depend on the type of position and the agency in which you will work. For example, even if you do not seek a position in an intelligence or national security-related agency, you likely will need to fill out the SF-86 if you are being considered for a Senate confirmed position.  Even thought you may not use a security clearance for such positions, the form (and the related FBI background investigation) will be part of the process.

Once you receive an official offer, either the White House or your hiring agency will confirm which forms you need to submit and give you the access to the online systems where you will input the information.

In an effort to make it simple, there are three types of forms:

  1. Background investigation and security clearance forms.
  2. Financial disclosure forms.
  3. Political and vetting forms.

There is no hard or fast rule. If you take a Cabinet or another very senior job, you should expect to fill out all of the forms – the SF-86, the SF-86 Supplement (which varies by administration), the Public Financial Disclosure Report (OGE Form 278e) plus White House and Senate questionnaires. Visit Ready-to-Serve.org for examples of these documents.

If you take a more junior, less sensitive position, you might not have to fill out the SF-86 or OGE Form 278e. Instead, you will likely need to fill out the Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions (SF 85P) and the Confidential Financial Disclosure Report (Form OGE 450), which does not require public disclosure of your personal financial information.

Sound hard? It is a bit of work, but tens of thousands of appointees have successfully prepared these forms in the past. The key is to get ready – and plan ahead. This website will help you be Ready-to-Serve.org.

Tina Sung is a Partnership for Public Service vice president who brings together and champions government leaders at the highest levels of the executive branch to maximize their impact and success in government.

The vetting process for individuals seeking a political appointment can be long and difficult. And the more senior the position, the more scrutiny appointees receive. Powerhouse attorneys Leslie Kiernan and Robert Rizzi have helped political appointees navigate the vetting process, and share their expertise with host David Marchick. They describe the appointment process, what might disqualify an individual and how the rules change with each administration. 

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Read the highlights:

Marchick: “What are the most common issues that arise during the vetting process?” 

Rizzi: “There are often tax issues that trip up nominees, classically nanny taxes. Those and other kinds of unpaid taxes are a constant problem. Taxes are complicated. People make mistakes. They find those mistakes during the vetting and that creates some significant issues.  

One of the other problems that we deal with constantly is financial conflicts of interest. There is a criminal statute that prohibits financial conflicts of interest. Many of the investment products that exist today did not even exist when the statute was enacted. And so how those standards applied to these kinds of investment products is very, very complicated, and those are often significant impediments to nominees. The best thing that people can do…is to try to anticipate some of those problems in advance. Because once you get into the vetting pipeline, it becomes much more difficult.” 

Marchick: “Laws around marijuana are changing state by state. How does this apply now when working for the federal government?” 

Rizzi: “Drug use is tested under the national security questionnaire, which has detailed questions concerning different kinds of drugs…It’s interesting because when we have clients who are relatively young, they’re sort of aghast that these are the issues that they’re being questioned about.  

The national security questionnaire focuses on federal law, not state laws. So even if marijuana use is legal in a state, that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem for the national security questionnaire… 

What has changed to some degree is the lookback rule. In the Bush 40 administration, there was a general understanding that if marijuana had been used more than seven years earlier, it could be disregarded. The Obama administration shortened that look back rule. There is a view that there is some period of forgiveness and that it is something that can be overcome. 

Kiernan: “It depends upon the position. I think that issues in that space also vary differently depending upon the committee [that is hearing the appointees’ confirmation]. So, it is something that, as Bob said, has evolved to some extent over time, but I don’t think that there is a single rule that governs this particular issue.” 

In reflecting on her experience vetting appointees and helping people through the process, Kiernan said: 

“I think it is incredibly important for candidates to be forthcoming in the vetting process. The worst place for a candidate to be is in a hearing where something comes up, and the candidate is being attacked for it. And either the White House or supportive senators are caught off guard. The idea that… nobody will find out is a very poor approach.” 

In discussing the recent restrictions on corporate lobbyists, Marchick pointed out that since the Clinton administration, the view on lobbyists coming in and out of government has changed. 

Rizzi: “Lobbyists had been a special target for a lot of the vetting issues that have come along. We haven’t really talked yet about the so-called ethics pledges that every administration since the Clinton administration has had, but those have special constraints on lobbyists going into government and…  after they get out of government. I was just talking to somebody today about a lobbyist for what everybody would regard as a public interest organization who was banned from going into the government because of these restrictions.   

Marchick: “Let’s say you were an advocate for the homeless… or some other disadvantaged group and you were doing the Lord’s work. If you happen to be registered a lobbyist, you were just ineligible under the former administration’s rules?” 

Rizzi: “Yes. We used to sort of kid that… all of the people who had been lobbyists for Friends of the Earth couldn’t work for the EPA. That was true in some cases. That was a judgment that was made, and I totally understand why given some of the things that we’ve seen.  

Marchick: You have said government ethics has become weaponized. What do you mean by that? 

Rizzi: “When I speak about weaponized ethics, what I mean is that the government ethics system, which is basically a set of filters to decide who should go into the government and who should not… has morphed into a system of using the process to try to achieve policy goals…The idea is that if we can block certain individuals from going into the government, we can affect policy. So one of the ways of blocking people is by emphasizing violations of some of these rules. And obviously that’s quite destructive and it deters people from going into the government.” 

Marchick: “What suggestions do you have to make the vetting process as smooth as possible should Vice President Biden win?”  

Rizzi: During the transition, the biggest problem is the clock is running. There’s a limited amount of time to get everything done…I think they need to be much more ruthless about making decisions quickly. We call it getting fast to know, and that is something I think they’re going to really have to have to think about.  

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?

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.