Trade group calls for reforms to appointments process

Aerospace execs say the long process and pay disparities shut out strong candidates.

An industry association on Wednesday released a report calling for a governmentwide simplification of the confirmation process for presidential appointees, higher compensation for senior leaders, and clarification of post-employment restrictions and financial reporting requirements.

"Extensive and extended vacancies in key leadership posts, particularly in a time of war, raise significant public policy concerns," said John Douglass, outgoing president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association. "Vacancies can affect the checks and balances that maintain integrity in our government."

The AIA report examined the confirmation process for 50 political appointees in the Defense Department. But the problems identified are relevant at civilian agencies as well, Douglass said.

When the AIA committee conducting the study began its work, a quarter of the 50 jobs examined were either vacant or were filled by an acting official, said Whit Cobb, who sits on the committee and is the vice president and general counsel of BAE Systems.

"These vacancies, we found, are not without consequences," Cobb said. "The people who fill these positions are those who directly implement the constitutional principle of civilian control of the military." Cobb noted that officials serving in acting capacities may wear more than one hat. The lack of permanent leaders can contribute to problems with employee morale and allow for corruption, he said.

Cobb and Douglass said the study found that the biggest hurdle to public service was the strenuousness of the confirmation process.

"There are so many players and so many opportunities for a nominee to be rejected," Cobb said. "When you put it all together, it deters all but the most stout-hearted from even attempting to be confirmed."

The report recommended that strict guidelines be set for each stage in the vetting process. The group also suggested that requests for information from the nominees should be centralized and standardized to avoid redundancy.

In addition to the complications of the process, the AIA report said pay differentials between executives in the public and private sectors were another major barrier.

"The pay issue takes many, many people out of play," Cobb said. "It causes people who would have served for a longer period of time to serve for a shorter period of time. It makes people more concerned about money and more concerned about their next opportunity rather than thinking about doing the best job."

Douglass said he felt the impact of taking a lower salary to serve the public when he worked on the Senate Armed Services Committee rather than taking a private-sector job after retiring from the military.

"By the time I'd been there about three years, my savings were gone completely," he said. "I had no money in the bank. I was beginning to accrue debt, and at that point in your life, that's a very negative thing. My lifestyle was very modest -- a little house here in town, one car, a working wife."

Douglass cautioned that the government should not seek pay parity with the private sector, but said the penalty for serving the government should not prohibitive.

"Most people look at government service as a service," he said. "There is a lower level at which people can't pay their mortgages and car payments and keep the kids in school. Certainly, we're not saying there needs to be parity. But the scales are so low now."

As a remedy, the report recommended making Executive Schedule appointees eligible for locality pay, establishing signing bonuses to compensate for moving expenses and pay differentials, narrowing financial divestiture requirements, and providing job search assistance to the spouses of appointees who relocate as a result of their appointments.

The report also recommended making the restrictions on employment after a period of government service less ambiguous. AIA called for a universal one-year ban on employment with businesses that work with the government.

Douglass said it is critical to discuss reforms, because there is still time to change the system before a new administration begins to make appointments.

"If you have to call many, many CEOs, or many, many businesspeople, or many, many intellectuals to get someone to take the job," Douglass said, "that seems to indicate that you're not getting the best and the brightest."