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Your Guide to a Presidential Appointment in the Next Administration

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In a recent article (“Thousands of Federal Jobs Are About to Come Open, but You’re Probably Not Going to Get One”), we pointed out that the number of political appointees can be misleading. You often hear 3,000, 6,000, and even 8,000 positions on occasion. For those seeking a presidential appointment, numbers can indeed be deceiving. Many of the jobs listed in the “Plum Book” (officially known as United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions) go to career senior executives in government and thus are “off the table” for political appointees.

In this article, we focus on the PAS positions (Presidential Appointment with Senate Confirmation) and delve deeply into the 1,217 positions listed in the 2012 Prune Book. Since then, over 100 jobs have been reclassified to PA positions (Presidential Appointment without Senate Confirmation) bringing the total down to over 1,100. Other positions have been reorganized or eliminated, making it difficult to have a precise current number until the 2016 Plum Book is published later this year. Based on research conducted by the National Academy of Public Administration and the EY Initiative on Leadership, we can now dig deeper into the 1,100 PAS positions to gain a better understanding of the components of that number. Based on our extensive review, the 1,100 PAS position break down into the following types of positions, each of which are discussed below:

  • Management positions (289 positions)
  • Ambassadorial positions (190 positions)
  • Commission and Board positions (145 positions)
  • Policy positions (121 positions)
  • Part-time trustee positions (109 positions)
  • C-suite positions, (94 positions)
  • United States Attorneys (93 positions)
  • United States Marshals (94 positions)

For those seeking a PAS position, the numbers of jobs are fairly limited and require specialized skills and experience.

Management positions (25 percent). These include cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries, and agency heads. Many require (or should require) extensive management and substantive experience in leading large organizations. When managing agencies such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Veterans Health Administration, there is no place for amateurs. Relevant managerial experience is required.

Ambassadorial positions (17 percent). There are many surprises when one looks closely at ambassadorial positions. The first is that they are the second biggest category of PAS positions. The second is that nearly 70 percent go to career Foreign Service Officers in the State Department. Based on figures prepared by the American Foreign Service Association, the third surprise is that of the 30 percent non-State department appointees, only about one-third of those positions (23 appointees in 2016) went to individuals who had been fundraisers for the Obama campaigns. While fundraisers are indeed sent to good places (such as France, Morocco, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom), their numbers are not as large as commonly perceived.

Commission and board positions (13 percent). Walking around Washington, one frequently comes across buildings that house such entities as the Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Communications Commission, Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, and so forth. Each of these bodies have between five and seven members. Interestingly, legislation creating these agencies requires that a minority of each commission consist of members of the opposition party (during the Obama Administration many Commissions have three Democrats and two Republicans—if all slots have been confirmed). Thus, all PAS positions do not go to individuals who belong to the party that won the election. These boards require highly specialized knowledge and experience. Again, amateurs need not apply.

Policy positions (11 percent). It is fair to say that these are the dream jobs for the policy wonks who inhabit think tanks all across Washington (and throughout the nation). The Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Services is an example of this type position, which has been held by a variety of academics and think tankers over the years. There are, however, few of these positions and competition is intense.

Part-time trustee positions (10 percent). Another surprise from our analysis is the large number of part-time trustee positions available to a president. There are more than 30 trustees positions for the Kennedy Center, as well numerous positions on the Council of the National Endowment of the Arts and Humanities. Nearly all are part-time positions requiring just several council meetings throughout the year. Those looking for full-time employment in government need not apply.

C-Suite positions (8 percent). Just as in major corporations, government today has an extensive c-suite, consisting of positions such as chief financial officer, chief information officer, general counsel, and legislative affairs officer. Appropriate specialized knowledge and experience is clearly needed in each of these positions. Managing the nation’s spending and accounting is no place for beginners.

U. S. Attorneys (8 percent). U.S. Attorneys represent the federal government in U.S. district courts and the U.S. court of appeals. There are 93 U.S. Attorneys stationed through the United States and territories. Each is appointed by the president for a term of four years with Senate confirmation (as with all PAS positions) and can continue to serve in office until a successor is appointed and confirmed. No recent law school graduates need apply. Experience is required.

U.S. Marshals (8 percent). Yes, there are still U.S. Marshals. While they may no longer wear cowboy hats and gun holsters, 94 marshals are selected for each of the 94 judicial districts. Each is traditionally appointed from a list of qualified law enforcement personnel for a district or state, with each state having at least one district. Today, U.S. Marshals are responsible for fugitive operations, prisoner transport, and protection of officers of the court. While a PAS position, these appointments are non-political in nature and require substantial law enforcement experience.

Over the coming months, much of Washington will engage in a kind of parlor game about who will receive the spoils of victory, but it is important to remember that the size of the “spoils” has been substantially reduced over the years. The goal of the famous Pendleton Act of 1883 was to create a large career civil service and much smaller cadre of political appointees. Those interested in seeking an appointment to one of these highly specialized positions should understand, as our analysis demonstrates, how few positions are really available, and the long odds of actually receiving a presidential appointment.

Mark A. Abramson is President, Leadership Inc. His email: mark.abramson@thoughtleadershipinc.com. G. Edward DeSeve is Executive in Residence, Brookings Executive Education Program and Chair of the National Academy of Public Administration’s Transition 16 (T16) effort. His e-mail: gedeseve@gmail.com. Daniel Griffith is an intern at the National Academy of Public Administration. His e-mail:dgriffith@napawash.org. Paul R. Lawrence is a Principal in the Government and Public Sector practice of Ernst & Young LLP. His e-mail:paul.lawrence@ey.com.

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