Since President Obama took office, the Corporation for National and Community Service has had a permanent chief executive for only 15 months, leaving it with diminished political clout at a time when its future has looked particularly tenuous.
The leadership gap dismays the corporation’s supporters, who were expecting the federal agency’s star to rise after Congress adopted legislation in 2009 to expand AmeriCorps and give the corporation responsibility for several new programs—but who instead have had to fight off attempts by House Republicans to seriously weaken or kill the agency.
It also raises questions about why the White House has found it difficult to find a good candidate to take the top job.
The chief executive who held the job for 15 months—Patrick Corvington, a former senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation—left abruptly last May. Mr. Corvington said he resigned because the job had become more political and he did not think he had the right skills. But people close to the corporation said he was a poor manager and resigned under pressure.
National-service advocates are now pushing hard to get the Senate to quickly confirm Mr. Obama’s latest nominee, Wendy Spencer, head of Florida’s state national-service commission since 2003. They hope the move might provide some stability to a federal agency where several other top officials resigned in recent months to take new jobs, including John Gomperts, the AmeriCorps director, who is leaving to become head of the nonprofit group America’s Promise Alliance. (For more about Ms. Spencer, see Page 20.)
But Ms. Spencer’s nomination is among dozens of nominations that have been stalled in the Senate because Republicans have blocked efforts to bring them to a vote.
In addition, the corporation’s bipartisan 15-member board is missing nine members, with multiple nominations held up in the Senate.
The most high-profile nominee to the board, John Podesta—former chief of staff to President Clinton and founder of the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the White House—withdrew his name last month after waiting more than 19 months to be confirmed. He was an unpopular pick with some Republicans, but said through a spokeswoman that he dropped out because he was tired of waiting for the Senate to act.
“Without strong leadership, it’s really hard for the agency to play a strong and visible role,” said Shirley Sagawa, a national-service expert who helped draft the law that set up the corporation. “It leaves the agency in the position where they can’t take bold moves. It feeds into the view of opponents that the corporation is weak managerially.”
Congressional critics have faulted the corporation for bad management over the years, most notably in 2002 when AmeriCorps suspended enrollments because it did not have enough money to pay for the scholarships that participants were to receive. As recently as 2009, a Democratic-led House appropriations subcommittee voted to trim President Obama’s budget request for the agency, saying it needed to improve its internal operations before it could expand.
The 2009 legislation, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, introduced new internal controls and policies to help the corporation demonstrate accountability. Sandy Scott, an agency spokesman, pointed out that the corporation has had 12 “clean” audits in a row (meaning the financial statements follow good accounting principles).
Mr. Corvington was selected after a search that took about a year. He succeeded David Eisner, a former business executive who left in November 2008 with mostly high marks for his tenure. President Obama’s first nominee to replace him, Maria Eitel, president of the Nike Foundation, dropped out, saying she had health problems. Several other candidates who were approached about the job, including some familiar names, turned it down, according to people close to the search.
Some prospects found the idea of joining the corporation “daunting,” one person said, because they believed it would take a lot of work to make the agency highly effective.
Other observers speculated that the job is a hard sell for people with a lot of managerial or business experience because the agency is relatively small and a political football.
The person involved with the initial search for a new chief, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she and her colleagues struggled over finding the perfect candidate because the position basically requires two people—“a top-level manager who can run the organization” and someone with vision and “sex appeal.”
Mr. Corvington seemed attractive because, as a foundation expert, he was more of a “modern thinker” than a representative of the “traditional service sector.” However, the source said, he had “less experience in getting things done” and “there were a lot of things that needed to get done.”
While far from a household name, Ms. Spencer is praised as a nationally recognized expert on national service and disaster response; she also happens to be a Republican who served on President George W. Bush’s Council on Service and Civic Participation.
Leaders of more than 50 state commissions and nonprofit groups, like America’s Promise, City Year, and Teach for America, sent a letter last month urging President Obama to bypass the Senate and appoint Ms. Spencer to her position during the February Congressional recess. Mr. Obama did not do that, but the groups are continuing to lobby both the White House and the Senate.
“The agency has had acting CEO’s for more than half of this administration and the service community needs a strong leader now,” their letter said.