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Thousands of Federal Jobs Are About to Come Open, But You're Probably Not Going to Get One

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Get ready for the most popular new website in Washington. In December, the Government Publishing Office will release two versions of the quadrennial United States Policy and Supporting Positions, more popularly known as the “Plum Book.” GPO will release a digital version of the book on their website, as well as a print version.

The Plum Book was first published in 1952 when incoming President Dwight Eisenhower sought information on how many political appointments he could fill after 20 years of Democratic administrations. With the exception of 1956, the book has been published every four years since then. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee alternate in compiling the book, with the latter producing this year’s version. The most recent edition was published by GPO in December of 2012. Always looking to sell books, GPO used a brilliant shade of plum to color the cover. 

The book contains listings of jobs by department, the type of appointment for each position, names of current incumbents in many of the positions, and salary levels. One of the interesting things about the book is that experts disagree on the exact number of “plum” positions available to a new administration. The definitions of “Positions Subject to Non-Competitive Appointment” include the following categories:

  • PAS: Position subject to presidential appointment with Senate confirmation
  • PA: Positions subject to presidential appointment without Senate confirmation
  • GEN: Positions designated as Senior Executive Service “general” (These positions can be used to select either career or noncareer individuals.)
  • NA: Senior Executive Service general positions filled by noncareer appointment (General SES positions which were used by the Obama Administration to appoint noncareer individuals.)
  • TA: Senior Executive Service positions filled by limited emergency or limited term appointment
  • SC: Positions filled by Schedule C excepted appointment
  • XS: Positions subject to statutory excepted appointment

Aspirants to a presidential appointment in 2017 should now begin work on memorizing the above acronyms to use in their conversations with the next transition team or the Office of Presidential Personnel (after January 20, 2017). However, not all of these positions are truly plums. By that, we mean that they are not all available to be filled by the new administration. People seeking a job in the administration need to realize that there are two types of SES positions. The first is the general type position that is referred to above. The second is the career reserved position available only to career civil servants. Each group totals about 4,000 jobs (out of about 8,000 total SES). The general positions can be filled by either a career or non-career person. In 2012, there were about 3,800 career general SES members and about 680 noncareer SES members. The Civil Service Act of 1978 stipulates that no more than 10 percent of the total SES population can be noncareer appointees.

The true plums, including general noncareer SES, total about 3,600 positions. These include both full time jobs and part time board and commission positions. Salaries range from PAS 1 (cabinet secretaries and their equivalent) to administrative assistants in the Schedule C category who may be at a GS-7 or GS-9 level. In December 2012, the numbers were:

  • Presidential Appointments with Senate Confirmation (PAS): 1,217
  • Presidential Appointments without Senate Confirmation (PA): 364
  • Non-Career Senior Executive Service (TA): 680
  • Schedule C (SC): 1,392
  • Total: 3,653

Two offices work with departments and agencies to fill the jobs. One is the Office of Presidential Personnel in the White House, which approves specific individuals for specific jobs. A candidate for a job can be proposed by a department or agency but they must be approved by OPP. Often, OPP will refer candidates to departments and agencies and require that individuals are given a good look before the department’s favored candidates are considered. The second key office is the Office of Personnel Management, which approves all SES allocations (career reserve and general) and makes sure that the general noncareer slots do not exceed 10 percent of the total SES positions as noted above.

The process can move reasonably quickly once an individual is selected for a position. He or she must be vetted by lawyers assigned to work with OPP who will ask hard questions and request completion of myriad forms, many requiring detailed financial information. One onerous part of Senate confirmation is that a different set of forms have to be filled out for confirming committees. Many experts have proposed the standardization of these forms but they have not yet succeeded. Background checks of selected appointees also include FBI review of individuals, which can include full field investigations or phone investigations by FBI agents.

You can put GPO's next edition of the Plum Book on your Christmas list, but that may be too late. After each party’s nominating conventions in July, resumes will begin to flow. After the election, the transition teams will begin formally allocating these resumes to potential slots in departments and agencies. John Gardner, former secretary of the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now the Health and Human Services and Education departments), characterizes this period like this: “So now we have a new administration. The venal and obsequious gather round. But fortunately, so do some very able people. And sometimes, of course, they are indistinguishable.”

The job of the transition team and of the Office of Presidential Personnel is to pick the real plums from among those who gather around.

Edward DeSeve is Executive in Residence, Brookings Executive Education Program and Chair of the National Academy of Public Administration’s Transition 16 (T16) effort. He served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. His e-mail: gedeseve@gmail.com.

Mark A. Abramson is President, Leadership Inc.  He is co-author (with Paul R. Lawrence) of the forthcoming Succeeding as a Political Executive: 50 Insights from Experience. His e-mail:mark.abramson@thoughtleadershipinc.com.

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