How to become a presidential appointee

2008 edition of Plum Book

The "Plum Book," published after each presidential election, lists jobs that the president can fill at his discretion.

President Barack Obama’s election victory will not prompt the wholesale staff changes that a Mitt Romney administration would have brought, but one expert says to nonetheless expect some significant chair-changing.

As the revolving door spins, administration officials must decide where to look for talent.  Political appointees and career professionals are both options for certain roles, and each comes with its own set of rules.

For political appointees, the Plum Book plays a key role – called so because of its purple color, “but also because some of these political jobs are plum jobs,” said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service. GPO is likely to publish the 2012 edition within a few days, Palguta said.

Officially titled the "United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions," the book is published  shortly after each presidential election and lists more than 9,000 civil service leadership and support positions that may be subject to noncompetitive appointments.

Not all of the jobs listed in the Plum Book can be filled at the discretion of the administration, however.  There are roughly 4,200 jobs that can be filled at the discretion, Palguta said, and 500 to 600 of them have some
special statutory exceptions or are time limited.

In a second Obama term, “it’s not going to be that huge of a change, but there will be a number of political appointees who decide after their first term that they are ready to move on,” Palguta said.

Many political appointments  -- Schedule C positions, and some non-career SES posts – are driven by the agencies themselves, though approval from the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.  Others, including the highest-ranking positions that require Senate confirmation, are made exclusively by the White House. These latter positions are known as PAS - presidential appointment with Senate confirmation.

“You can’t bring in a complete hack,” Palguta joked about the PAS positions. “But very interestingly enough, there was a recent change where a number of jobs were freed from that requirement because the problem is that getting Senate approval takes such a long time.”

Prior to 2012, more than 1,200 civilian positions in the  executive branch requires the Senate’s advice and consent, according to an October report from the Congressional Research Service.

However, earlier this year a bipartisan group of senators created two measures they said would reduce the gridlock in the appointment process. The Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011 eliminated the need for the Senate to vote on roughly 170 executive nominations and 3,000 Officer Corps positions. The bill was signed into law Aug. 10, 2012.

For some job types, the requirement for Senate confirmation is a historical byproduct and does not apply across the board, Palguta said. For example, while Veteran Affairs Department CIO Roger Baker has Senate confirmation,  General Service Administration CIO Casey Coleman does not.

Whether a positon should be filled by a political appointee or a career servant can change, too. Palguta recalled how in his previous role at the Merit Systems Protection Board, the director of policy and evalutations was originally a political position while the general counsel was a career job.

“Before I took the job, we had an agency head who wanted it the other way – the director of policy and evaluations should be career because it should be very objective, and the general counsel should be a political appointee because that was someone who was going to be an adviser to the chair,” he explained.

Not only does the post-election era mean some senior executives are heading out the door, but recent numbers indicate overall government retirements are climbing. Fedscope data showed a 45 percent increase across government in the fourth quarter of 2011 compared to the same quarter of 2010.   As a result, would-be agency leaders have more possibilities than ever.

And while the ideal political appointee has both superior qualifications and political pull, Palguta said that lack of White House connections should not keep executives from applying.
“Looking from the applicant’s point of view, you should let it be known that you are available and you could find youself in a job you’re qualified for even if you weren’t out campaigning,” he said. “Other times, you have some good political connections; you did campaign and you were very loyal and are good at serving so you get appointed that way.”

With SES jobs, Palguta noted that 90 percent must still be filled through by career SES officials. Which 10 percent of slots get filled by political appointees is fairly flexible, however -- more than 3,700 SES spaces are open to non-career appointees -- and there are few restrictions on moving career SESers to other SES positions elsewhere in government.

“That happens on a fairly regular basis – not as nearly as much as some people intended, Palguta said.

Mark Forman, former associate director of IT and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget, said the level of difficulty in finding senior executives depends on how broadly the competition is allowed to go.

“The reality is that a lot of the competition is guided to get certain candidates through the competition process, and no one ever comes out and says it but that has been true about the civil-service system for years,” he said. “A lot of these competitions for the more senior people are structured in a way to get candidates that certain groups of hiring people want.”

Forman had some advice for administration officials looking to staff up: Look at the sustainability of the project or program and the responbsility for which you are trying to hire.

“A lot of hiring takes place in chunks because people want to get things done fast and they want to make the change occur,” said Forman,  who is co-founder of Government Transaction Services.

Traditionally, the way this has worked in government is “throw people and money at the project,” Forman said. The new reality of the declining budgets presents a challenge, he said, but “if you have bipartisan support -- especially from Congress -- then you’re in a better position to recruit.”

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.


  • Workforce
    White House rainbow light shutterstock ID : 1130423963 By zhephotography

    White House rolls out DEIA strategy

    On Tuesday, the Biden administration issued agencies a roadmap to guide their efforts to develop strategic plans for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA), as required under a as required under a June executive order.

  • Defense
    software (whiteMocca/Shutterstock.com)

    Why DOD is so bad at buying software

    The Defense Department wants to acquire emerging technology faster and more efficiently. But will its latest attempts to streamline its processes be enough?

Stay Connected