White House group recommends digital form, less paperwork for presidential nominee

Tuesday - 11/13/2012, 4:03pm EST

A White House task force, charged with streamlining the onerous confirmation process for presidential appointees, took aim at duplicative forms and overly burdensome questions in its first report, issued last week to the President and key congressional committees.

The working group recommended Senate and White House leaders design a core set of common questions and develop a single electronic "smart form," similar to tax-filing software, that appointees could use to complete the necessary forms.

The group, a bipartisan collection of current and former lawmakers and government officials, was borne out of the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in August. The law immediately cut more than 160 positions that once required Senate confirmation. It also tasked the working group with recommending further fixes to the process.

Cutting paperwork, going digital

Presidential appointees are typically required to submit a number of forms: a questionnaire for national security positions, financial-disclosure forms from the Office of Government Ethics and then a spate of more specific queries from the White House and the relevant Senate committees.

The problem is that many of the forms contain similar — but not quite exact — questions, "requiring candidates to tailor their answers to account for small differences in questions intended to elicit more-or-less the same information," according to the report.

The group recommended developing a core set of questions, similar to the "common application," adopted by many colleges and universities. Senate committees or the White House could always supplement these core questions with additional ones, if needed.

When paired with these core questions, the development of an electronically based "smart form" would allow nominees to "answer all vetting questions one way, at a single time," the report stated.

The authors of the report said the electronic system would be similar to tax-filing software that guides users through a set of questions and automatically populates completed forms.

The group estimated design and development of such a system would take about eight to 12 months, and the "investment of time and money is eminently worthwhile."

Other recommendations included cutting back on "unnecessarily burdensome" questions in favor of more narrowly tailored queries and requiring less scrutiny for part-time positions on boards and commissions.

Immediate impact on new nominations?

Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the proposed reforms would have an immediate impact on Obama's second-term nominations.

"If the bipartisan working-group recommendations are adopted, the President's new nominees will proceed through their Senate confirmations more efficiently than others have in the past because of reduced paperwork," he said in a statement.

Streamlining paperwork won't entirely fix the problem, Lisa Brown, the working group's chair, wrote in the preface to the report. But it is a significant first step.

"While the working group can do nothing to change the political climate or turn back the information age, it can recommend significant reforms to the paperwork involved in the process to ease unnecessary burden on nominees, while more quickly providing all parties with the information they need to determine nominees' suitability for office," said Brown, who's also the acting federal chief performance officer.

The group's next report, to be focused on background investigations for appointees, is due in May.

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