Uncle Sam Doesn’t Really Know How Many Political Vacancies Agencies Have

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The government doesn’t have a good system for keeping track of vacancies in top agency jobs, and Congress is largely to blame for that, according to a new report from a Washington think tank.

The Office of Personnel Management and Government Accountability Office maintain “limited” data on political appointments below the Senate-confirmed level, a Brookings Institution report on tracking agency vacancies and reforming personnel systems concluded. It’s not the fault of those agencies, however, the report said. Rather, “weak legislative mandates and restrictive budgets that limit innovation” are to blame, Brookings found.

“Congress must wake up to the reality that the data infrastructure for something as basic as personnel accounting across the executive branch is in dire need of modernization and innovation,” wrote John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at Brookings and managing editor of the think tank’s FixGov blog. “Constant congressional cries of inefficiency, slack, waste, fraud and abuse make for appealing and flashy political statements. Rarely are they backed with the necessary funding to allow government to make necessary changes.”

There are roughly 4,000 political appointees serving throughout the executive branch, and while the government is good at tracking who is serving in those positions, vacancies in top policy and management jobs are falling through the cracks and it is unclear how those openings affect agencies, Hudak said. The 1998 Federal Vacancies Act required agencies to notify Congress and GAO when a vacancy popped up for a Senate-confirmed position; it also limited the length of time an acting official could serve.

GAO created a tracking system to monitor vacancies but the law only applies to Senate-confirmed jobs, not the thousands of other political appointments throughout government. It also relies on individual agency reporting, which is “mixed and imperfect,” Hudak wrote, citing GAO findings. “The outcome is a set of limited data systems that offer little relief to a government that seeks to improve, streamline and become more efficient,” he noted.

Other databases on executive branch jobs exist, but none of them focus on vacancies, or the type of position left empty, Hudak said. OPM compiles and maintains a central personnel database that includes individual records and pay and benefits data for most federal civilian employees. But, Hudak pointed out, data are tracked by the individual employee, not the position, and the information repository wasn’t designed to follow vacancies or show patterns associated with certain positions.

The Plum Book, which presidential transition teams use to staff the government when a new commander-in-chief is elected, lists leadership jobs but is compiled once every four years, doesn’t track the length of vacancies and relies on often spotty agency reporting. The Executive and Schedule C system includes data on positions within the Senior Executive Service and on political appointees who are non-career SES and Schedule C. But that too depends on agency reporting and lacks consistency. Agencies also are not obligated to notify OPM after they’ve received the authority to hire someone under that system, or track transfers, resignations and other personnel moves.

“When vacancies occur, they affect not just the political interests of the president, but the administrative capacity of agencies,” Hudak said.

Hudak recommended expanding the capabilities of the current systems, tracking information about the positions themselves and not just the individuals occupying them, and developing mandatory reporting requirements for agencies. Collecting such data not only provides insight into vacancies, but also can help officials assess the usefulness of converting or transferring appointees into career jobs in specific agencies, Hudak said. Sometimes conversions are a wise move for agencies, but other times converting such jobs can increase an agency’s costs and put pressure on current SESers, who often have to train the former appointees.

The data also help show whether a position is still necessary. “Little attention is given to an examination of the necessity of certain political appointments or appointment authority,” the report said. “Improved data can offer systematic and nuanced data to help start a conversation that can both improve administrative efficiency and reduce budgetary needs.”

The Brookings scholar also suggested including performance evaluations for appointees at the “individual- and position-levels” into a new, consolidated tracking system since political appointees often serve multiple tours spanning different agencies and presidential administrations. “This system will allow agencies and the White House Office of Presidential Personnel streamlined access to performance evaluations of specific candidates,” the report said. “It can also provide additional and critical insight to those making appointed personnel decisions.”

(Image via tadamichi/Shutterstock.com)

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