Placing the Call to Service: How Past and Future Presidential Appointees View the Appointment Process

March 1, 2001

The Founding Fathers designed America’s government to be led by citizens who would step out of private life to serve their nation and then return to their communities ready to recruit the next generation of public servants. Their hopes extended to what Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin called the “posts of honor” in the executive branch. Watchful lest private gain rather than the public interest tempt citizens to take these positions, Franklin proposed that executive officers receive “no salary, stipend, Fee or reward whatsoever for their service.” (The Constitutional Convention quietly tabled his proposal without debate.)

Thomas Jefferson also had a high regard for these executive posts, believing quality appointments as important to the public’s confidence in government as the laws that its elected leaders would enact. “There is nothing I am so anxious about as good nominations,” he wrote nearly two hundred years ago at the dawn of his presidency.

The passage of two centuries has seen the young nation mature into the world’s strongest government. But its need for talented citizens to fill its posts of honor remains undiminished. And, fortunately, the nation’s civic leaders remain willing to serve. That is most certainly the message from two surveys of past and potential appointees conducted on behalf of The Presidential Appointee Initiative.

Of 435 senior-level appointees from the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations interviewed during the winter of 1999—2000, more than half said they would strongly recommend presidential service to a good friend. And of 580 civic and corporate leaders interviewed during the summer and fall of 2000, almost three-quarters said that presidential service would be both an honor and an opportunity to make a difference.

But if the spirit of service is strong among America’s leading citizens, the presidential appointment process is weak. Past appointees view it as a burden at best, an ordeal at worst. They report unnecessary delays and frustration at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And the civic leaders who make up the pool from which future appointees will be drawn see the process as confusing, embarrassing, and unfair. Unless something is done soon to improve the manner in which presidents make their appointments, fewer and fewer of the nation’s most talented leaders will accept the call to service.

The Willingness to Serve

During the past summer and fall, Princeton Survey Research Associates, a nationally recognized opinion research firm, conducted telephone interviews with a cross-section of U.S. civic and corporate leaders on behalf of The Presidential Appointee Initiative. The 580 respondents included Fortune 500 executives, college and university presidents, chief executive officers of the nation’s largest nonprofits, think tank scholars, lobbyists, and state and local government officials.

The vast majority of the respondents were very or somewhat favorably inclined toward serving as a presidential appointee. Seventy-two percent said that such service would be an honor. Most also saw it as a way to earn heightened respect from friends, family, and neighbors, as well as a way to increase their ability to make a difference. When asked about the benefits of service, they also saw solid returns on their investments (see table 1 below). Most thought presidential service would give them valuable contacts, open future leadership opportunities, and increase their earning power, all at a relatively low cost in terms of lost contacts and promotions and difficulties returning to their careers afterward.

This is not to say that these civic and corporate leaders saw presidential service as either lucrative or easy. Few of the corporate, academic, and nonprofit executives in the sample expected it to increase their earning power, no doubt because they were already at the top of their salary scales. Think tank scholars, lobbyists, and state and local government officials did see future potential gains in salary, either through their increased value to their home institutions or through their increased ability to move elsewhere in their fields.

The three groups of executives also associated service with higher costs. Corporate and academic chiefs were more concerned than other respondents that they might be unable to return to their careers after presidential service, and corporate CEOs were far more apprehensive about losing promotions and other opportunities for career advancement. Unlike most think tanks, which have long traditions of welcoming former colleagues home after service in the executive branch, the corporate and academic doors tend to swing shut behind their departing chiefs.

Moreover, all six groups worried about the potential disruption of a move to Washington, D.C. They cited high real estate prices, commuting times, and problems relocating spouses. More than half said that living in Washington compared somewhat or much less favorably to living in their current residences, and 45 percent said that relocating their spouse would be very or somewhat difficult.

Views of the Nomination and Confirmation Process

As detailed elsewhere in this issue, the process by which those appointees are invited to serve is almost as bad as it can be. It begins with a 60-page stack of forms asking repetitive and intrusive questions, continues with an FBI full-field investigation that can take weeks or even months to complete, and concludes with a Senate inquiry often filled with partisan acrimony. It assumes, as one former White House chief counsel remarked last fall, that all appointees are “innocent until nominated.” It also favors Washington insiders and those with enough money to hire outside legal and financial advisers.

Potential appointees are getting the message. America’s civic and corporate leaders have been watching what happens to presidential appointees, whether through the experiences of friends and colleagues or through reports in the news media. They do not like what they see. Even more than past appointees, potential appointees called the process embarrassing, a necessary evil, and confusing. Only 43 percent of all potential appointees described the process as fair, as compared with 71 percent of past appointees.

Corporate leaders took a particularly negative view. Thirty percent said the word “confusing” described the process very well, compared with just 15 percent of college and university presidents and 13 percent of state and local officials. Corporate leaders also were more likely to describe the process as both a necessary evil and embarrassing, perhaps acknowledging that their financial holdings create the potential for substantial embarrassment as the media cull through the required financial disclosure forms.

Potential appointees were also harsher than past appointees in their judgment of both the White House and the Senate. Whereas 64 percent of past appointees believed the White House handles nominees reasonably and appropriately, only 42 percent of potential nominees agreed. And whereas 46 percent of past appointees said the Senate also acts reasonably and appropriately, only 28 percent of potential nominees thought so.

Past and potential nominees did agree on one thing. Both groups believed that the current process is uneven at best in recruiting talented people to serve. Only 11 percent of past appointees and 14 percent of potential appointees said that current appointees represent the best and brightest America has to offer, while 79 percent of past and 75 percent of potential nominees described current appointees as a mixed lot, with some highly talented and others lacking the skills and experience their positions require.

Paths to Improvement

Past and potential appointees also agreed broadly on how to improve the process, starting with providing information on how it works. The demand is unmistakable: 39 percent of Reagan, Bush, and Clinton appointees either got insufficient information from the White House or got none at all, while 47 percent of the potential appointees knew little or nothing about how the process works. And having that information made a big difference. Past appointees who were well informed about the process were more likely than those who were not to describe it as fair and not embarrassing.

Both past and potential appointees also wanted a simpler, faster process. Of the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton appointees, 37 percent recommended streamlining the process and 28 percent favored accelerating action. Of the potential appointees, 73 percent said that simplifying the process would make a presidential appointment more attractive.

Interviews with potential appointees also highlighted other reforms that would make service more attractive, notably increasing pay and making it easier for them to return to their previous jobs after they serve (see table 2 below). Interest in particular reforms varied. Lobbyists, for example, were most interested in higher pay, while nonprofit executives were most interested in being able to return to their previous careers.

Making the Case for Service

The call to service might resonate more if employers were more encouraging toward presidential appointments. Roughly half of the potential appointees interviewed said that their employers would encourage them strongly or somewhat to take a presidential appointment. Yet employer support for presidential service was uneven. Only 10 percent of Fortune 500 executives and university presidents and 18 percent of nonprofit CEOs said their employers would offer strong encouragement to serve, compared with 44 percent of think tank scholars, 36 percent of lobbyists, and 33 percent of government officials.

What could make more difference than anything else, however, would be for America’s presidents themselves to reach out to the nation’s most talented civic and corporate leaders. According to statistical analysis of the telephone surveys, respondents who are most favorably inclined toward presidential service are those who see it as a way to make a difference, who see it as an honor, and who view the appointment process as fair. That suggests three simple ways to enhance the case for service.

First, presidents should talk incessantly about how presidential appointees can make a difference through their work, thereby emphasizing one of the great advantages of public as against private life.

Second, presidents should remind appointees of the honor involved in service to one’s country. Old-fashioned though they may be, patriotism and the love of country are still powerful motivators for public service.

Third, presidents—along with the U.S. Senate—should do everything possible to simplify, streamline, and accelerate the manner in which presidential appointees are nominated and confirmed. Potential appointees who view the current process as unfair are much less likely to look favorably on an appointment, no matter how great the honor or the impact.

Presidential service has other advantages, not least the ability to make valuable contacts, enhance future earnings, and strengthen leadership prospects. Still, the most significant selling point for service is that it is a post of honor in which individual citizens can make a difference for their country. Presidents should never stop reminding the nation of that fact.

Table 1: Benefits and Costs of Service, as Perceived by Civic Leaders, by Group
Percent Who Agree Total Fortune
Lobbyists Govern-
Benefits of service include:
Make valuable
97 95 96 94 99 98 99
Increase future
leadership possibilities
83 73 80 73 84 95 93
Increase earning
61 46 41 46 72 80 79
Costs of service include:
Lose valuable
10 14 10 11 8 11 5
Risk losing promotions
or other career advancement
23 43 19 19 24 22 13
Prevent a return
to career
21 32 30 18 15 8 20
Source: “Posts of Honor: How America’s Corporate and Civic Leaders View Presidential Appointments,” Paul C. Light and Virginia L. Thomas (PAI, January 2001). Total number surveyed was 580: 100 Fortune 500 executives, 100 university presidents, 85 nonprofit CEOs, 95 think tank scholars, 100 lobbyists, and 100 state and local government officials. Data reflect percentage of civic leaders surveyed who agree or agree strongly.
Table 2: Impact of Reforms on Attractiveness of Presidential Appointment, as Perceived by Civic Leaders, by Group
Percent Who Say
Each Reform Would
Make An Appointment
More Attractive
Total Fortune
Lobbyists Govern-
Make financial
easier to meet
35 47 33 24 34 46 23
laws easier to meet
36 53 30 18 30 62 20
Increase pay 71 57 69 75 72 77 74
Simplify the process 73 80 74 72 78 79 58
Make it easier to
return to previous job
67 68 70 77 64 70 56
Source: Same as table 1. Data reflect percentage of civic leaders who say each reform would make a preseidential appointment somewhat or much more attractive.