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The High Cost of Leaving Key Federal Management Jobs Unfilled

Until President Biden gets key officials in place, it’s going to be difficult for him to make progress on his agenda.

In late June, Government Executive reported that the Biden administration was moving forward on its management priorities despite key vacancies at the Office of Management and Budget and elsewhere in government. OMB Deputy Director for Management Jason Miller said, “the administration is already full speed ahead on implementing ambitious actions towards a more effective, equitable and accountable government that delivers results for all Americans.”

On July 10, the Washington Post picked up on that theme, looking a bit more broadly than just at OMB, which still lacks a director, a head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, an administrator of federal procurement policy and a chief financial officer. Their focus was on positions that have direct involvement in crisis areas that the president prioritized at the start of his administration—the pandemic, the economy, climate change and racial inequity.

The article listed a host of key jobs that remained unfilled, including the head of the Food and Drug Administration, the solicitor general at the Justice Department, a seat on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, the comptroller of the currency, the assistant attorney general for antitrust, and the chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. 

So where are we now? As they used to say in fundraising telethons,, "Let's go to the big board." The Partnership for Public Service is tracking 796 government positions among about 1,200 that require Senate confirmation. As of July 28, 100 had been confirmed, 14 picks were awaiting formal nomination, 184 nominations were being considered by the Senate, and 274 positions had no Biden nominee.

The Partnership also has identified 228 appointees so far who are serving in term appointments or were held over from previous administrations. Many of the latter are career foreign service officers at the State Department serving as ambassadors in smaller nations around the world. 

Let's take a more detailed look at the management cadre within the ranks of the still-unfilled positions.

Of the 184 nominees being considered by the Senate, I found 32 that I would characterize as being in management roles—chief operating and financial officers, inspectors general, general counsels and those in charge of policy, planning, evaluation, acquisition, installations, logistics, human resources, and so on. That’s 17 percent of the openings. Ten general counsel positions are open and six financial management ones. Of the 274 jobs still lacking a nominee, 48 are management roles—also about 17 percent. Of the positions awaiting formal nomination, one is in the management arena: the assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics in the Air Force.

At the pace the administration and the Senate are moving, and with so many issues on the legislative agenda well into the fall, we may be seeing some presidential appointees just coming into their jobs in 2022, even as some of the very first Biden appointees start to leave. The average tenure of a Senate-confirmed appointee is 18 to 22 months.

Why should we care about this situation? Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, has compared acting officials in appointed positions to substitute teachers. Even if they’re good at their jobs, it’s hard for them to implement far-reaching changes or strategies.

The government faces a number of hard challenges in the management arena—aging information technology infrastructures, legacy systems, workforce shortages, skills gaps, and more. Who will fix them? The Biden administration has laid out an ambitious policy agenda. Who will implement it? The elections in 2022 and 2024 will turn in part on how well policies and programs are working—how legislation has been turned into actions that make life better for Americans. Can so many substitute teachers come through in our increasingly unruly classrooms?

Management matters—for the American people and for political decision-makers. We need to find a solution to close the gap between when a president is sworn in and when they are able to get a full team in place. That may require some streamlining of the appointments, making fewer positions Senate-confirmed, or some combination of both. It makes little sense to continue down the current path.

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