Monday, February 9, 2009

Betting on Vetting

This article also appears in

Why We Need To Ask (and Answer) Questions
It happens every four years but also in lots of places in between. It’s the political vetting process.

Despite the development of an unprecedented process of detailed queries by the Obama administration (including a seven page survey with 63 separate requests for information), it’s been a banner year for viewing some high-profile nominees go down in flames. These include Tom Daschle for HHS Secretary and Bill Richardson for Commerce Secretary. Either the answers to the questions were inadequate or the vetters themselves were inadequate or both.

Sarah Palin, who remained on the GOP ticket after a much maligned shotgun-wedding-of-a-vetting process, might have been the most talked about case. Yes, there were the serious issues of her readiness to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, the ethics investigation in Alaska, her husband’s DUI arrest and her unwed teenage daughter’s pregnancy. But it communicated more. Reputations suffered. The unraveling episode was a reflection of the McCain team, and of the man himself and his judgment. Some argue that the Daschle and Richardson picks (and throw in Timothy Geithner and Nancy Killefer) cast similar doubts on the President.

Of course, this isn’t new. I’m not a political historian but just off the top of my head I can remember Thomas Eagleton for Vice President in 1972, John Tower for Secretary of Defense in 1989, ZoĆ« Baird for Attorney General in 1993, Bernard Kerick for Homeland Security Secretary in 2004 and Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court in 2005. The reasons for these falls from grace are various, including mental health issues, tax problems, outright corruption and limited qualifications.

Politics is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the lack of vetting – just ask those who were ripped off by Bernard Madoff. It’s clear that questions should have been asked but I don’t have an answer on how to overcome blind faith or greed that blinds.

There are several points here:

Taking the time to ask questions – good questions – is essential. But equally essential is the need to receive good answers – truthful answers – in a timely fashion.

The truth will out. Being transparent and honest is the first, best – the only – approach. And, let’s face it, our 24/7 on-line world is relentless in its pursuit of a good story.

We must accept, however, that decisions must get made eventually and that time is often an enemy. The best decision-makers know when collecting more and more information leads to diminishing returns. We need to learn how to manage and accept risk.

If we are to wear an ethical mantle, then we must commit to ethical standards… all the time, not just when it’s easy or convenient or in public. And, we must ensure that those with whom we work or hire also adhere to those principles.

These lessons are not new to professionals in the communications field. Strategic communicators ask questions and gain insight through rigorous analysis of information. They look around the corners, predicting outcomes and the potential unintended consequences of a particular course of action. They prepare scenarios (from those with high probability but little impact to those with low probability but a high potential for damage) and engage in “wargaming” exercises. They develop comprehensive Q&A documents, and pay attention to language and tone. They determine, in advance, who might be an advocate and who might be an adversary. Once prepared, they move forward.

The call from Washington for more transparency and higher standards is a good thing. Openness and sharing information is what democracy is about. Perhaps some day down the road we might learn that sweeping bad or embarrassing news under the rug is bad business. If not, someone will always be around to ask, “What’s that lump under the carpet? Let’s see what’s there!”

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