Vetting, minus the pain

What's up with vetting political appointees?

A friend of mine was recently considered for a political appointment in the Bush administration. As we discussed the prospects—he ultimately decided not to take the job for personal reasons—a lengthy discussion of the appointment process ensued. We concluded that there is no legitimate reason for it to be so cumbersome, bureaucratic and painful.

As a political appointee in the Clinton administration, I could not believe just how dumb this process was—especially given that administration's goal of creating a government that works better and costs less.

My fundamental question is: What's up with vetting political appointees? By the end of this year, the Bush administration will have succeeded in filling most of the more than 2,500 political appointments. Most of the appointees will have endured a time-consuming, paperwork-intensive marathon that would frustrate even the most dedicated public servant.

Few will complain about the process because appointees don't want to be perceived as whiners. That could be detrimental to their careers.

The administration should do something. It is understandable that White House officials haven't until now focused on the vetting process. The administration's officials have relied on others who have been there before to walk them through the cycle. But it has become an impediment to implementing the administration's agenda.

Administration officials should commission—and fund—the General Services Administration to create a Web-based process for vetting political employees. It would look something like this: White House staff would have a secure Web site requiring public-key infrastructure authentication to obtain access. Only people being vetted and those reviewing the paperwork could have access.

Potential appointees would enter their Social Security numbers and give permission to search all databases to obtain relevant information regarding finances, property, tax and court records. This raw data would be kept in a single electronic file.

There would also be a brief questionnaire asking appointees relevant lifestyle questions. White House staff members would then transmit the information on appointees requiring background investigations to the FBI, which would do the relevant interviews and post results to the site. Only those with a need to know could access the FBI data.

Authorized Senate committee and staff members would be granted access to information regarding the potential appointees who require confirmation. The entire process would be paperless, fast, more efficient and much less painful than the existing one.

It may be too late to develop such a process for this first round of political appointees in the Bush administration, but the changes would certainly benefit later appointees. It would also clearly demonstrate that the administration is serious about government reform.

Brubaker is president of e-government solutions at Commerce One Inc. and a former deputy chief information officer at the Defense Department.

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