How to pick a cabinet that’s ethical and effective

It stunned a lot of us:  no sooner had President Obama begun nominating people to fill his top posts, than stories of scandal began swarming around his choices.  No one, including some of the most respected names in contemporary American politics, seemed immune:  from tax problems to lobbying concerns, nominees began dropping out almost as fast as they took the call.

It was, many observers agreed, a profound indictment of a Washington culture that assumed perks and privilege come with power. 

But it also put President Obama in a bind:  on the one hand, he’d vowed an ethical and transparent administration.  On the other hand, the nation is facing big crises:  people with experience in government could be key to getting desperately needed work done. 

When it comes to making a choice between ethics and experience, how do you choose?  How important is it that the people making decisions pay their taxes properly, and how much does it matter if someone called upon to make fundamental change is a system is a product of the old, failed, culture?


Craig Holman is the Legislative Representative for Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer advocacy organization in Washington D.C., and a leading expert on government ethics who has even been consulted by the Obama administration.  Public Citizen has just begun an internship program with Saybrook in which select students in Saybrook’s Social Transformation program will work at Public Citizen. 

Holman says that while Obama hasn’t gone as far as he would like in keeping people associated with the traditional “Washington culture” from positions in his administration, he’s already gone farther than any president before him – and he expects things to get better.

“I wish he had started with a whole clean slate, but I am very encouraged,” Holman said.  “Obama came out with an executive order literally on the second day of his term that laid out for the first time ever a screening process on who can step into his administration, and it’s based upon conflicts of interest, and it’s a great policy.”

Never before, Holman said, has a president so clearly laid out a policy whereby people who work for companies with conflicts of interest, or who have recently lobbied the department they’d be tapped to serve, are bared from influential public posts. 

“It hasn’t worked out really smoothly,” Holman says.  “There are still some kinks to be worked out.  Obama has issued some waivers.  But it’s a good first start.  If we can set the conditions so that people can be screened out based on their conflicts of interests, it’s a very good start. 

Another way Obama is helping address Washington’s culture of conflict-of-interest is by encouraging more new faces to get involved in government.

“Obama’s already expanded the pool by the vast numbers of people he’s been able to tap into both as volunteers getting support and by expanding and tapping into academics,” Holman says.  “That makes a big difference when you’re looking for talent.”

Altogether, Holman suggested, Obama is making many of the right moves to create an administration clear of conflicts of interest – while at the same time acknowledging that, as a relative newcomer to Washington, he can’t go it alone.

“It appears that he’s feeling new to the position himself and wants to tap into people who have experience in previous administrations,” Holman says.  “I think over time he’ll feel less of that need, and I’m very encouraged by the way he administered that executive order, clearly ethics is something that’s very high on his agenda.”