Do You Have What It Takes To Be a Political Appointee?

Public service can be a noble calling and a golden opportunity, but there are some downsides.

The start of a new Administration is still months away, but planning for 2017 has already begun. The New York Times recently presented an in-depth article on the forthcoming transition, highlighting a recent transition planning meeting held in New York.  Vetting for the first personnel decision is already underway—both the Washington Post and the New York Times report that the presidential candidates have begun reviewing potential vice presidents.

So it is only natural that political donors and campaign workers outside Washington might start to exhibit symptoms of Potomac Fever as they dream about the possibility of a presidential appointment. Inside the beltway, veteran “in and outers” naturally begin thinking about one more rotation “in.”

A recent article focused on the relatively small number of presidential appointments that are actually available to a new administration. If you think you can beat the odds and are interested in an appointment, this article aims to assist in your deliberations. There are many reasons why an individual should be attracted to public service. There are, however, reasons why public service may not be suited to everyone, and there are some real downsides to public service. Anyone thinking about an impressive Washington title and big office overlooking the National Mall needs to take these things into consideration.

Reasons to Seek and Accept an Appointment

During the past seven years, we conducted interviews with 65 high-level Obama Administration political executives, many of whom we interviewed several times. We were impressed with the reasons interviewees gave for coming (or coming back) to Washington. Most said that the job offered an opportunity to make a difference and they felt they had a unique opportunity to contribute to the organization they were asked to lead.

In many cases, these individuals had previously served in government and were part of the professional community surrounding the agency they were being asked to lead. In the case of John Thompson, director of the U.S. Census Bureau at the Commerce Department, he had previously served at the Census from 1975 to 2002 in senior positions, including leading the 2000 Census. When offered the position of director in 2013, Thompson recalls, “I wanted to see what changes I could bring to the Census. I believed we could save money on the 2020 Census. I felt that the 2020 Census clearly needed a conceptual vision.”

Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, had a similar experience. After having served as deputy administrator from June 2010 to December 2011, and acting administrator starting in December 2011, Huerta recalls, “In the spring of 2012, former Secretary Ray LaHood asked me to consider being nominated as administrator. We had a good conversation. I had to talk to my wife about accepting the nomination. I knew that this was an important time for the agency. I viewed it as a ‘call to serve.’”

In addition to meeting the challenges of a specific agency during a specific period of time, there is also the call to public service as cited by Administrator Huerta. Nearly all of the political executives we interviewed strongly endorsed answering the call to service. Margaret Hamburg, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, says she would encourage people enter public service. John Morton, former director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says, “Public service is very rewarding. You are motivated every day. You are doing right and serving people.”

Reasons to Turn Down an Appointment

Thompson, Huerta, Hamburg and Morton all believed they were the right person at the right time, that they each could make a contribution to their organization. But it does not always work out that way. Individuals may not be offered their first choice (or even their second or third) and thus face the dilemma of taking a job that might not be a good fit.

Not enough attention is given to why someone should not to seek or accept a position. In deciding whether to pursue a presidential appointment, an individual must answer the following questions:

  • Does my experience prepare me for the job?
  • Is this the right job for me?
  • Does the job fit my personality and work style?
  • Am I willing to subject myself (and my family) to the scrutiny of the nomination process?


Some people are unwilling to admit that their experience does not prepare them for the job they are seeking or have taken. Nonetheless, we believe that anyone considering an appointment should ask themselves the following questions:

  • What is your experience dealing with the mission of the organization to which you are seeking an appointment?
  • What is your relevant management experience?
  • Do you have management and leadership experiences that will instill confidence in your agency?
  • Do you have a plan to be successful in the job?
  • Are you prepared if something goes horribly wrong?
  • Do you have experience dealing with a crisis that could happen during your tenure?

We interviewed political executives who regularly drew on prior experiences to help them do their jobs. Their prior experience put them much further ahead than those who lacked experience. If you are considering a position for which your answers to the previous questions are “no” and you believe you will be able learn it all on the job, be advised that this is a high-risk path.

The Right Job

If you do decide that your experience fits the job, the next key question is whether the specific position offered is the right job for you. While past and present position appointees often are reluctant to admit that they were appointed to the “wrong” position, there is much anecdotal evidence of people changing jobs to find the right fit. After serving for four years as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, R. Gil Kerlikowske was asked for recommendations to head the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection. Kerlikowske recalls, “After being asked for recommendations, I volunteered myself to head CBP. I was eager to get back into operations and get away from policy. I was familiar with Southwest border issues.” Kerlikowske had spent his career in law enforcement, including serving as chief of police in Seattle, Washington, prior to accepting the position at ONDCP. He was pleased to be returning to a front-line position.

Do You Have the Personality?

Some people are not well-suited for bureaucracy. Bureaucracies move slowly, with many obstacles standing in the way of a specific goal. In reflecting on his government service, Michael Whitaker, deputy administrator of FAA, advises, “For some people, they will find that government does not move fast enough for them. Some people should not come to government if they are not going to like the speed of it.”

You get the idea. While a crisis might speed up the bureaucracy, government requires patience and a long time frame. Quick hits are possible, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Prospective appointees need to understand their temperament and style. There is room for some entrepreneurship in government, but again it is the exception rather than the norm.

Are You Prepared for Scrutiny?

Finally, prospective appointees have to decide whether they wish to make their lives an open book—both literally and figuratively. An FBI investigation is required for all appointees, as well as intense scrutiny of an individual’s financial situation. All financial forms required by the Office of Government Ethics and congressional committees are made public. In addition, the entire career of an individual being nominated for a position also comes under the microscope. It is now common for controversial statements or incidents from the past to receive renewed attention. In the age of the Internet, it is not very difficult to find past speeches and comments that can be raised in a congressional hearing.

Know What You Are Getting Into

The stakes are high in accepting a presidential appointment. While many appointees leave Washington with their reputations enhanced, there is also the risk of leaving Washington with a damaged reputation. This (usually) occurs not based on personal misbehavior but instead on management failure happening on one’s watch.

We are strong proponents of public service, but we recognize that an appointee position is not for everyone. Those interested in seeking an appointment must first ask themselves some hard questions. If they are comfortable that they are well suited, we wish them the best in their public service.

Paul R. Lawrence is a principal in the government and public sector practice of Ernst & Young LLP. His e-mail:  Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His email: This article is adopted from their forthcoming book Succeeding as a Political Executive: 50 Insights from Experience (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).