First Person

Why does it take so long to fill top agency slots?


Partnership for Public Service Vice President John Palguta spent more than three decades in agency leadership roles, including director of policy and evaluation for the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board and branch chief in the Office of Personnel Management’s personnel office. In an interview with FCW, conducted on June 3, Palguta talked about the structural, political and sheer mathematical challenges facing agencies in need of top talent.

How does this second term transition compare to previous administrations? Are there more and longer vacancies, or does it just feel like that in the moment?

Palguta: It depends how far back, of course, you go. I've been around for a long time. But if you go back to the Kennedy administration, there were simply fewer political appointee positions to fill. I think it did go more quickly, just on the sheer mass of numbers.

It has varied over different administrations. In part, not so much the skill or devotion of the new team but partly by the makeup of Congress. Not only who's controlling the Senate whether same party or different party but how well the two sides are getting along.

Right now, we have a heavily divided Congress. Sometimes the delays have little to do with the qualifications of the nominee and more to do with one side or the other trying to leverage that nominee's appointment to achieve some other legislative end holding hostage certain jobs.

But many senior-level positions don't require Senate confirmation. What are there delays there?

Palguta: You raise a good point. We do have 364 jobs that are presidential appointees without Senate confirmation. We've got 680 to 700 SES positions that can be filled with political appointees. We've got almost 1,400 Schedule C positions.

The environment is making it more difficult to fill some of those, simply because the image of government right now is tarnished. And clearly, if you're looking at it as in addition to public service an actual job, the conditions of employment are less attractive, relatively speaking.

You're coming into an environment where there's been three years of pay freezes. There are huge challenges in terms of getting things done in a period of sequestration tight budgets, rising workloads, and increased scrutiny of individuals.

I'm just looking at what's going on with IRS, went on with GSA and some other organizations now. You've got to wonder. People looking at, coming in, and serving even in a non Senate confirmation role, there's got to be some reservations being raised.

I do worry about that. I do think that's having an impact.

So is the challenge mainly one of recruiting, or does the process play a role? Does the Office of Presidential Personnel slow down the hires, or is it simply the unavoidable nature of government hiring?


You're coming into an environment where there's been three years of pay freezes. There are huge challenges in terms of getting things done in a period of sequestration tight budgets, rising workloads, and increased scrutiny of individuals.

Palguta: Oh yeah, the poor Office of Presidential Personnel takes a lot of lumps some of them deserved! But they're being impacted by some of the same things that are impacting the career hiring. I've been around long enough...pre Internet, pre personal computers. You had to fill out your forms in longhand, or you'd type them and you'd mail them.

The volume of applicants was manageable because people screened themselves out just because they didn't want to take the effort. But now, you've got anybody with a finger on the Enter key able to submit applications. I was talking to one Chief Human Capital Officer the other day, who was mentioning that for one of their positions, they literally received 8,000 applications.

The ability to screen through that is really tough. I know Presidential Personnel has got to be inundated. It's kind of a conundrum. You say, public service is less attractive than it has been, but now we're being overwhelmed with applicants.

I think both are true. The problem is that we're being overwhelmed with applicants who are not of the quality that we're looking for. Some are, but it's finding those gems in the larger pool.

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel told FCW in an interview last fall that he wanted to be involved in all agency CIO hires. How does the coordination between individual agencies and OMB work for these senior professional positions?

Palguta: It doesn't work well enough. Some of those jobs are political and some are career. I will tell you on the career side, this is something that we're going to speak to in our civil service reform package. On the career side, hiring structure is delegated to each agency to do its own thing. They all post on the USAJobs website, but when they get the applications they do their own screening.

You have an agency that has spent potentially a lot of time coming up with some great Chief Financial Officer or Chief Information Officer candidates. They're lucky enough to end up with two great candidates. Of course, they can only hire one. You have another agency saying, "Hey, we'll take your leftover."

They can't do it. They have to start all over again, because the current laws do not allow them to say, "OK, we've done all the screening. This person is eligible to be hired. Go ahead and hire them." It's, "No, one agency is not delegated the authority to examine other applicants for another agency."

They can give them that person's name, but then they have to tell the person, "We have to do our own job screening, and post our own job. We want you to apply and wait around while we go through the whole process."

And get back to you in six months.

Palguta: It doesn't make any sense. On the political side, I would assume, would hope that the Office of Presidential Personnel, when they get some good candidates, they're doing some shopping around and some discussions. But if that's happening a lot, I don't see it.

We have a couple high profile folks who certainly are being moved around effectively. You mentioned Steve VanRoekel and of course Tangherlini at GSA now, and Danny Werfel. ... But I think actually there should be more of that, both career and political, more mobility than we're seeing.

Are certain types of jobs easier to fill in that sense? Can a Schedule C hire move faster than one that's designated as SES or traditional civil service?

Palguta: Certainly, in the sense that you don't have to go through the proscribed competitive screening process that's laid out in law and regulation. But I've talked to people who were very patient in their interest in pursuing or receiving a Schedule C or a presidential appointment without Senate confirmation. They tell me it was a crazy system. They had to go through to talk to people, to try to get referred, even when they seem to have good political support.


Nobody that I talk to is describing the political appointee process per se as being any kind of model of efficiency.

It should be pretty straightforward. But I think, again, for White House Presidential Personnel, they've got hundreds of people to screen -- probably thousands, maybe tens of thousands. It's just tough.

Nobody that I talk to is describing the political appointee process per se as being any kind of model of efficiency.

Has as there been a time or particular agency where you think the process has really worked well? A case study that others could look to for guidance?

Palguta: We [at the Partnership for Public Service] are confident that it can be improved. Several years ago we did an extreme hiring makeover in three different agencies who volunteered, just to show that it could be done on the career side. We were able to make significant improvements and show that you can streamline the process.

We've made some progress within the current statutory framework in executive branch on the career side. The problem is we're starting to run into statutory roadblocks. We've got hiring rules and regulations that are literally pre computer rules. Some of them have changed or modified, but there are others that are in need. Part of it is numbers. The number over time of political appointees has grown, and that creates its own set of issues. But the other thing is you've just got to get organized.

I will say that the George W. Bush administration transition to the Obama administration worked better, earlier because the two teams worked together pretty effectively post election. There are ways.

In a second term, key players often leave well before a president finishes up his term. How long until agencies will be facing that wave of vacancies?

Palguta: It seems to be getting shorter and shorter. I was a little bit surprised at how many people in key positions were calling it quits pretty early on after the election for a second term. I think any administration just has to anticipate that there's going to be a lot of movement. I'm seeing it go down even to the career CXO level. If you take a look at the CIOs out there, I would guess that very few of them were in their positions at the beginning of the Obama administration.

I deal mostly with the Chief Human Capital community, and we did a report last summer called "Bracing for Change." It was based on a set of interviews I did, one on one interviews with all the CHCOs.

Five years ago, we did our very first round of interviews. 53 people, five years later, over half of those 53 people were gone from their positions. Most of them actually gone from government.

That's a big churn for some of those key jobs. I worry about the lack of continuity and the lack of a long-term strategic vision.


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