The personnel office, too

THE PERSONNEL OFFICE, TOO…. It’s hardly a secret that Barack Obama has quite a bit of cleaning up to do once he’s sworn in. Beyond the global crises Bush is leaving for his successor, there’s the executive-branch bureaucracy and federal agencies that the current president has effectively trashed.

It doesn’t get too much attention, but Bush has really done a number on the White House Personnel Office, which has the not inconsequential task of filling administration jobs with qualified, competent people — or at least those who are supposed to be qualified and competent.

Washington University law professor Thomas Schweich has a New York Times op-ed reflecting on his experiences with the personnel office, after having served under Bush as the ambassador for counternarcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan, the deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement affairs, and the chief of staff of the United States mission to the United Nations. (thanks to T.L.)

For two of these jobs, my appointment was preceded by an effort by a 20-something in personnel to place an unqualified friend in the job. (In the third instance, the State Department went out of its way to avoid the personnel office by appealing directly to a senior assistant to the president.) For one of the jobs, two State Department officials, John Bolton and Anne Patterson, had to intervene.

In the worst cases, the “kids” — as many of us called them — would search for a candidate and eventually conclude, like Dick Cheney when he was the head of George W. Bush’s vice presidential search team, that they were the best candidates for the jobs.

The operation Schweich described was not exactly a professional system. A “large corps of 20-somethings” were tasked with staffing the executive branch of government. The vast majority of the young people running the personnel office brought “very little experience and a very big attitude” to the job.

A top foreign service officer shared with Schweich an anecdote in which he was interviewed to be the ambassador to a volatile African country. The applicant quickly realized, however, that the 20-something interviewing him couldn’t even pronounce the name of the country.

Schweich concludes that Obama would be wise to “fill the personnel office — and the liaison offices to the White House at the various executive branch departments — with a combination of veteran government employees and human resources experts. That’s the way to ensure that the best people get the jobs that will shape our country for the next four years.”

Just another item for Obama’s to-do list.

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