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Memo to the President: Staffing Your Team

Policy expertise is crucial for many positions, but managerial experience is essential to others.

The foundation for good management in the federal government is effective leadership at both the political and career levels. Presidents do not run the government alone. They must work with the thousands of political appointees they name, who must in turn work with career executives who implement the president’s policy agenda and execute the laws.

Three challenges face the White House Office of Presidential Personnel:

  • Find those most qualified for positions and deflect demands for patronage from unqualified applicants.
  • Begin recruitment efforts early and streamline the appointments process.
  • Work cooperatively with cabinet secretaries in choosing the subcabinet, who in turn, must work cooperatively with career executives.

Choosing the Best People

The criteria for selecting candidates are multiple and require balancing numerous factors—substantive and political. The most important criterion should be: Is the person qualified for the job? Policy expertise is crucial for many positions, but managerial experience is essential to others. Recruiters must understand the qualifications necessary for hundreds of cabinet and subcabinet positions. Members of the personnel recruitment operation must know the position descriptions and qualifications necessary for the jobs the president must fill.

One of the first challenges facing the president-elect’s recruiters is to deal with the volume of requests for appointments that flood into transition headquarters immediately after the election. Resumes, e-mails and phone calls will pour in by the tens of thousands. In recent administrations, this flood has reached 1,500 per day. The Obama administration fielded more than 300,000 applications for appointed positions. The best way for a new administration to deal with this volume is to staff the recruitment team early and clarify the process by which each potential nominee will be vetted before taking a short list to the president for a final decision.

From the spoils system of the 19th century to the 4,000 political appointments available to today’s presidents (including lower-level positions), loyal partisans expect appointments in the new administration. Demands to appoint specific individuals can be expected from Congress, the president’s political party, friends of the president, and even the president’s family. Pressures for patronage are not all illegitimate, but they are inevitable. The Office of Presidential Personnel must be prepared to deflect the expectations of people unqualified for the jobs they seek. The success of a president depends directly on the quality of the administration’s top managers, and placing unqualified people in subcabinet positions will hurt the new president and administration.

Overcoming Delays

Before an appointee can be formally nominated, he or she must survive vetting by the recruitment operation, a national security investigation by the FBI, and financial scrutiny from the IRS and the Office of Government Ethics. Once the nomination gets to the Senate, hearings can be hostile and embarrassing; they are an ordeal to be endured, and may take an extended period of time. The average time for confirmation of presidential appointees has increased significantly over the past several decades, from 88 days in 1981 to 127 in 2009. Over the same period, 25 percent of nominees submitted to the Senate were not confirmed.

Causes for delays in nominations include inadequate pre-election planning, insufficient human resources devoted to personnel, slow recruitment and vetting, the multiple information forms that have to be filled out by candidates, and the flood of applications for jobs. While the Senate confirmation process is slow, the more significant cause of delays in filling positions is the executive branch selection and vetting process. It took the Obama administration an average of 131 days to nominate appointees.

White House Staff vs. the Cabinet

In order for the president’s policy agenda to be effectively implemented, teamwork in the departments and agencies must be orchestrated. This goal can be undermined by conflict between cabinet departments and the OPP. Historically, the OPP tends to focus on loyalty to the president, and is suspicious of appointing people who are sponsored by members of Congress or cabinet secretaries. White House staffers often think cabinet secretaries are likely to recruit people who are loyal to the secretary but not necessarily to the president.

From the perspective of the cabinet secretary, the issue is one of building a management team for the department. Secretaries frequently are suspicious that the OPP will weigh the political service of a potential nominee more heavily than expertise and managerial ability. Reagan administration Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci’s advice for leaders of cabinet departments reflects this perspective: “Spend most of your time at the outset focusing on the personnel system. Get your appointees in place, have your own political personnel person, because the first clash you will have is with the White House personnel office. And I don’t care whether it is a Republican or a Democrat . . . if you don’t get your own people in place, you are going to end up being a one-armed paper hanger.”

OPP must balance loyalty to the president, competence of the nominee, and the desire of the cabinet secretary to shape his or her management team. Political appointees provide electoral accountability and commitment to the president’s policy agenda. Appointees’ close connections to administration officials and partisans in Congress provide them a unique perspective on the president’s agenda. In contrast, career executives are more likely to have program and policy expertise based on management experience in the federal government. Their long familiarity with the agency, its programs and its budgets helps them manage programs effectively.

The contrasting roles and perspectives of career and political executives can provide dynamism and expertise to the executive branch, but it can also lead to conflict; thus it is essential that the two types of executives understand their roles. The appropriate role of political appointees is to lead the executive branch and formulate policy direction for programs and agencies. Career civil servants, on the other hand, see their roles as faithfully executing the law and carrying out policy directives. Though the boundary between policy and administration is murky, the principle is crucial to the smooth functioning of government.

This article is part of a series of Memos to the President, highlighting advice from leading academics and practitioners in public administration for the incoming president and his team. The series was developed by the National Academy of Public Administration, the American Society of Public Administration and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Click here for more information and links to the full set of memos.

Photo: Flickr user angela n.