Strikeout at INS

October 1, 2002

It is no surprise that James Ziglar has decided to leave his post as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the end of December. The agency was a disaster before he arrived and did not improve after. He took the post just six weeks before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and was at the helm when the agency sent belated visa notices to a Venice, Fla., flight school on behalf of two of the dead hijackers.

Ziglar was the victim of a presidential appointments process that too often starts with a candidate that must be placed rather than a job that must be done. Ziglar had absolutely no expertise in immigration or running a troubled agency such as INS. He mostly has experience in changing jobs, not fixing agencies. He started his career as an aide to Sen. James Eastland, D-Miss., in the 1960s; moved to the Justice Department for a year; spent a year as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun; worked for a couple of law firms; switched from law to financial services; ran the Interior Department’s Bureau of Mines during the Reagan administration; joined junk-bond dealer Drexel Burnam Lambert; and then went to Paine Webber before becoming Senate sergeant-at-arms in 1998. Ziglar was tapped for the INS job for one reason: connections. He grew up in Pascagoula, Miss., as a boyhood friend of Senate Republican leader Trent Lott. Lott had helped Ziglar get his appointment at Interior in 1987 and brought him back to Washington a decade later as sergeant-at-arms. His nomination sparked no controversy in the Senate. Democrats and Republicans alike admired his deft handling of the 1998 Clinton impeachment.

Ziglar could have survived in a host of political jobs. He would have made a fine assistant secretary for legislation at just about any department, and he might have succeeded back at Interior. But Ziglar, who apparently chose the Justice Department as his destination, ended up at INS.

It couldn’t have been a poorer fit. INS needed someone who could work a managerial, not political miracle. The agency had earned a C- in Government Executive’s 1999 Federal Performance Report. That grade dropped to a D in the 2002 management review.Asthe report explained, “Mediocre to poor performance in every management area persists.”

Ziglar also was hurt by the sluggish appointments process. He was tapped for the post in April 2001, but even with his connections, he wasn’t confirmed until the day the Senate left town for recess in August. Ziglar deserved better, as did INS, which had no commissioner for most of the year.

Once on the job, Ziglar picked the wrong agenda for his $4 billion agency. Perhaps drawing on his banking experience, Ziglar set his sights on friendlier, faster service at the INS. He told the agency’s customers only weeks before the September attacks, “I want you to feel like you have gotten good service, that you’ve gotten courtesy in the service that’s been given to you, and that’s it’s been given to you in a very timely fashion.” But tougher law enforcement, not shorter lines, is what INS needed most.

Considering the mess at INS, the White House and the Senate might have assumed Ziglar was the best candidate they could get to accept the job. Perhaps they thought his financial services background made sense, given the service side of the mission. Or they might have concluded that INS couldn’t be saved no matter who was named to lead it. Whatever the reason, the nomination and confirmation process assured that Ziglar would be late to the job, and his lack of experience guaranteed he would be the wrong man at the wrong time.

Although nothing could have saved Ziglar, given the circumstances, his failure suggests several lessons for the future: Appointees need help getting into office faster. Four months is too long for appointees to linger in the process, especially when they have important work to do. The forms are too long and duplicative, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has better things to do than check into presidential appointees’ traffic fines.

Appointees need guidance on running their agencies, including an orientation program. The Office of Management and Budget had money for an appointee orientation program long before Ziglar’s appointment, but didn’t launch one until after he was confirmed. But the program would not have helped someone as inexperienced as Ziglar to manage his 34,000 employees.

Appointees cannot be blamed for all that goes wrong on their watch. Ziglar did not create INS’ muddled mission, antiquated systems or haphazard hierarchy. Nor can he be faulted for emphasizing customer satisfaction. That was the focus at all federal agencies before Sept. 11.

Don’t be surprised if another candidate like Ziglar shows up at some not-too-distant date. The Bush administration still has plenty of vacancies to fill. Although the nomination process has produced many good fits for this administration, officials too often start with a name and then cast about for a suitable job. That is a perfect recipe for failure.