A president is elected every four years, but he or she does not run the government alone. Thousands of political appointments must be made to establish the White House's leadership of the executive branch.

These appointments depend on an elaborate process of recruitment, confirmation, the mastering of their offices, and the collaboration with career executives to implement the president's priorities and execute the law. But the political appointee system that developed over the course of the 20th century is broken in several important ways.

In recent administrations, the political appointments process has slowed significantly. From 1964 to 1984, presidents had about 48 percent of their top appointees in place within two months. But from 1984 to 1999, only 15 percent had been appointed. In the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, about 50 percent of the top 75 national security appointments were vacant on May 1 of their inaugural year, and 85 percent of the top sub-cabinet positions in legislative, legal, management, and budget offices remained empty. The average time to get a new appointee confirmed was about three months in the 1960s and now approaches 10 months. Vacancies at the beginning of second terms, when turnover of personnel is common, present similar challenges.

Causes for delays in confirmation include inadequate pre-election planning, insufficient human resources devoted to personnel, slow recruitment and vetting, multiple information forms to be filled out by candidates, and the flood of applications for jobs after each election. Once filled, these positions often become vacant before the end of a president's term, leading to agency inaction, uncertainty for civil servants in implementing programs, and lack of accountability. In addition, the expanding role of political appointees, combined with their increasing numbers, has exacerbated the consequences of delayed confirmation and has led to the underutilization of the career services, with serious program delivery consequences.

This article will make recommendations for improving the recruitment of political appointees for the executive branch, reducing the total number of appointees, increasing the efficiency of Senate confirmation of appointees, and using the career services more effectively.

Recruitment of Political Appointees

For the president to be able to fully implement new policy priorities and lead the nation, it is crucial to have the top levels of executive branch leadership in place. Each presidential administration is faced with appointing about 3,000 people to help run the executive branch. In addition, there are another 3,000 part-time presidential appointments, as well as about 700 White House staff appointments. Of the 3,000 executives and commissioners, about 800 require Senate confirmation (not counting 200-300 U.S. attorneys, marshals, and ambassadors). In addition, there are about 800 noncareer Senior Executive Service appointments, and 1,500 Schedule C (GS-15 and below) appointments.

To facilitate the timely placement of presidential appointees, we recommend that presidents establish priorities on positions to be filled quickly, especially those related to national security. More resources should be allocated to the Office of Presidential Personnel (OPP); the OPP should work closely with the Senate and vetting agencies to share information about nominees to expedite clearance processes. A reduction in the total number of political appointees would facilitate the political appointments process and improve the leadership of the executive branch.

Of course, the routine functions of government continue to be carried out by the civil and military officials responsible for implementing policies that are in place. But they cannot represent the president's administration, provide policy leadership, or make decisions about significant policy changes. In addition, the increasing layers of political appointees mean that there are fewer career executives who have the requisite experience to serve effectively at the highest levels of departments
and agencies.

Given the lack of agency leadership in the early months of each new administration, it is imperative that the appointments process be reformed so that the president's team can take control of the government and implement the new administration's policy priorities. We recommend the following measures:

  • Personnel planning should begin several months before an election so that an organized personnel process is ready to go immediately after the election of a new president.
  • The OPP should be increased in size so that the resources are available to move quickly at the beginning of a new administration.
  • A new president-elect should name the top personnel recruiter during the transition to be the director of OPP, and he or she should remain in that position during the first year of a new administration.
  • A president beginning a second term should ensure adequate resources for OPP.

Frequent Turnover and the Senate's Role

In addition to delays at the beginning of new administrations, vacant positions continue to hinder effective policy leadership throughout presidential administrations. Turnover and vacancies create hidden costs; management positions filled by appointees show systematically higher rates of turnover on average than management positions filled by careerists. While the average chief executive office in the private sector stays five to seven years, the average tenure of an appointee is usually about 2.5 years.

Regular turnover in management positions has corrosive effects on management performance. Two years is long enough to start new initiatives and begin to see them implemented but not long enough to see them fully carried out. This can be problematic for agency management as this myopic focus systematically reduces the incentive of agency managers to engage in long term planning.

Presidents of both parties regularly complain about the length of the confirmation process for their nominees. Although the nomination lag is longer than the confirmation lag, the latter is still substantial, and it is increasing. In addition, expected hurdles in the confirmation process may slow presidents in making nominations. Several issues contribute to the confirmation lag: holds by individual senators, lack of deadlines, and increased political challenges to the White House's picks. Inconsistent and duplicative disclosure mandates to appointees also contribute to delays in appointment and confirmation. The following measures would contribute to a more expedited appointments process:

  • Presidents should require appointees to commit themselves to serve until the end of the president's first term.
  • The Senate should establish fast-track procedures and place time constraints on senatorial "holds" and on committee consideration before confirmation votes.
  • The OPP should convey appropriate background information to the relevant senate committees along with the president's nomination of appointees.
  • The executive branch and Congress should agree on a single background information form that can be used by both branches in vetting nominees.
  • The FBI and other background-investigating agencies should increase investigative capacity during transitions, and agencies should accept the clearances of other agencies with the same standards.

Judiciously Reduce the Number of Appointees

Since the middle of the 20th century, the number of appointed positions has almost doubled, both in total numbers and as a percentage of federal civilian employees. Some of the increase is the natural result of an increase in the number of federal programs and agencies. When Congress creates new programs or agencies, it creates new Senate-confirmed positions to manage these endeavors.

Appointees play a vital role because they provide electoral accountability, and presidents understandably want to fill political positions in the executive branch with those who have worked for them and who share their political and policy priorities. But with between 3,000 and 4,000 appointments to make, the quality of appointees, especially at lower levels, suffers. Political appointees at top policy-making positions are central to presidential leadership, but the key program and agency management positions require experienced managers who know those programs well.

Career executives inside agencies are more likely to have program and policy expertise derived from agency work experience and long tenures managing federal programs. They have a better understanding of the rhythms of public sector work, informal networks, and the arcane realities of public agency management. Their long familiarity with the agency and its budgets and processes helps them manage programs better and communicate more effectively with outside stakeholders and inside partners.

When political appointees assume key program management positions at the operational level, those agencies are increasingly characterized by lower levels of expertise and public management experience. This can be seen in cases such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to Hurricane Katrina or the Iraq Reconstruction.

We recommend a reduction of the total number of political appointees to allow presidents to focus on those most important to policy leadership. In addition, freeing up positions at the management level will improve opportunities for the best career executives and encourage them to continue in the public service. Some recommendations:

  • Presidents should reduce the number of Senate-confirmed positions in management positions, which are ideally suited for careerists oriented to care about long-term planning and the agency's health.
  • Evidence suggests the deleterious effects of appointee management at the program level; appointee-run programs do worse than their career-led agencies in comparable programs. Efforts to cut appointees of all types should focus on the program or bureau level.
  • Reduce Schedule C positions. Those appointed to these positions have little formal authority, but can accrue substantial informal authority and diffuse the authority of PAS executives (presidential appointees who must be approved by Senate vote).

Use Career Executives More Effectively

The expanding role of political appointees, combined with their increasing numbers, has led to an underutilization of the career services. No matter how sound the policies, or how skillful the president, success will depend heavily on how well career executives implement his or her initiatives. An effective partnership between political and career leaders from the beginning of each new administration will do much to determine the success or failure of the president's agenda.

The experience of career leaders enables them to assess organization and personnel capabilities better than political appointees, understand the level of acceptable risks more clearly, innovate quickly, and act more rapidly. And when career personnel are prohibited from recommending the award of grants and contracts, merit is usually replaced with favoritism and corruption, increasing costs and often undermining public confidence in their government.

As the number of political appointees has grown, the roles of lower-level appointees and career leaders have become blurred, which has weakened accountability. In addition, the clarity of a presidential message becomes diffused as it filters down to career leaders through increasing layers of political appointees, some of whom feel stronger loyalty to their political sponsor than to the president. Finally, the layering of political appointees also weakens the priority attention agencies give to public service values such as equity, transparency, and accountability.

Most advanced countries limit the role of political appointees to policy rather than operational roles. Consequently, we make the following recommendations:

  • Limit the number of political appointments, particularly Schedule C and those below Executive Level III.
  • Develop the capacity of qualified career executives to handle key operational roles. Each deputy to a program assistant secretary or bureau chief should be drawn from the career SES.
  • Enable mobility for career executives, especially at the highest departmental and interagency operational levels, to ensure continuity for agencies during periods of transition or vacancies in political appointee positions.
  • Create systematic, institutionalized orientation and training sessions for new appointees to enhance their performance.

Recent positive steps, such as reducing the number of positions requiring confirmation by 166 votes (S. 679) and formalizing transition resources have improved the process. But more can and should be done.

If the president and Congress put the above recommendations in place, we will see significant improvements in the management of the government and the delivery of services to the American people.