The Brookings Institution’s Presidential Appointee Initiative and the Transition to Governing Project of the American Enterprise Institute today announced the release of a software package that makes it easier for presidential nominees to fill out the multitude of forms they must complete as part of the appointments process. The Nomination Forms Online (NFO) software allows appointees to fill out all of the forms on their computers and reduces the amount of duplication by automatically distributing basic information, such as name, address, Social Security number, marital status, and position for which the person is being nominated, to all of the appropriate forms.
The NFO software was developed as part of The White House 2001 Project, led by presidential scholars Terry Sullivan and Martha Kumar and funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts through The Presidential Appointee Initiative and the Transition to Governing Project. The programming was done by Boston Education and Software Technologies in Mumbai, India.
“This software makes the mountain much easier to climb,” said Paul C. Light, who helped spark the idea for the software in 1998 while at The Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia, and supported its development as Senior Adviser to The Presidential Appointee Initiative. “There are still too many questions to answer, and too much overlap, but at least appointees don’t have to do this all on a typewriter anymore.”
Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who co-directed the Transition to Governing Project with Brookings Senior Fellow Thomas E. Mann, said the NFO software is “an important step in rationalizing the appointments process. The mass of complicated, intrusive, and confusing forms that presidential nominees are expected to fill out are just one example of how we discourage public-spirited individuals from serving in government,” Ornstein said.
The Presidential Appointee Initiative, the Transition to Governing Project, and other advocates for reforming the presidential appointments process have been encouraging the White House and Congress to reduce the duplication involved in filling out the nomination forms to help reduce delays in filling positions.
“Nominees face an inquiry process that is more complex than filling out their income taxes,” said presidential scholar and NFO developer Terry Sullivan, who is on the faculty in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and affiliated with the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. “Nominees must vary and modify their basic answers to scores of questions simply because no one accepts exactly the same information. It is as if the IRS were to make you calculate your taxable income five different ways, sometimes excluding part of your interest statements, some of your wages, and a portion of your business costs, and sometimes not.”
Nearly half of the 435 former appointees interviewed on behalf of PAI in 1999-2000 said they had consulted with an outside expert about the financial aspects of the forms and more than a third complained that filling out the forms took too long. Since approximately 38 percent of nominee inquiries involve repetitive answers, using NFO would reduce a nominee’s workload by a similar amount, Sullivan said.
NFO is a self-sufficient system that does not require people to do or buy anything before they begin using it. The software can be easily downloaded to an individual’s PC. It is available on the web site of The White House 2001 Project (http://whitehouse2001.org). It is also available in a CD-ROM format. Although the software can be downloaded from the Internet, the information on the forms is contained on the individual user’s computer and is, therefore, completely private. Once the forms are completed, the user simply presses the print key to generate hard copies of all the completed forms.
A typical nominee for a position requiring Senate-confirmation must file several consent forms authorizing background and credit investigations and fill out four forms asking for extensive personal and financial histories. The “Personal Data Statement Questionnaire” originates in the White House. The version currently used by the Bush administration covers 23 questions, which run the gamut from describing the general state of your health to listing any household help you have employed and each book, article, or column you have authored.
Those permitted by White House to go to the vetting stage fill out three other forms. Standard Form 86, the “Questionnaire for National Security Positions,” is the springboard for the FBI’s full-field background investigation of nominees. Standard Form 278, the “Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report,” comes from the Office of Government Ethics. Most Senate-confirmed nominees also have to fill out a separate form from the committee with jurisdiction over the nomination.
The NFO software will reduce the need for redundant answers to the questions nominees are asked to fill out on the various forms. In the typical situation, nominees using the software will first use an inventory of forms to identify the ones they believe they must file. NFO then builds a workspace of questions to answer and a work inventory to keep track of the questions nominees have answered.
Congress is considering legislation that could make it simpler for nominees to fill out their financial disclosure forms. “The Presidential Appointments Improvement Act of 2001,” introduced by Senators Fred Thompson (R-TN) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) on December 12, 2001, would, among other things, simplify and streamline the financial reporting requirements currently demanded of appointees. The bill reflects recommendations made by representatives of PAI, AEI and the Office of Government Ethics at hearings before the Governmental Affairs Committee last April.
“The bill takes another important step forward toward restoring commonsense to the appointments process,” said Light. “It makes life easier at the front-end of the process by reducing the layers of needless information required from appointees.”
Editor’s Note: For interview requests with Paul C. Light, Brookings Vice President and Director of Governmental Studies and Senior Adviser to The Presidential Appointee Initiative, contact Gina Russo at (202) 797-6405 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For interview requests with Norm Ornstein, contact Veronique Rodman at (202) 862-4871 or email@example.com. For interview requests with Terry Sullivan, contact Laura Toler at UNC Chapel Hill News Services at (919) 962-8589 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact Sullivan directly at (512) 633-6500.
The Brookings Institution established The Presidential Appointee Initiative in 1999 with funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Transition to Governing Project is an American Enterprise Institute Project in conjunction with the Brookings Institution and the Hoover Institution, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit organization devoted to independent research and policy solutions. Its mission is to conduct high-quality, independent research and, based on that research, to provide innovative, practical recommendations for policymakers and the public.