Revisiting the Political Appointment Process

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court-pediment.jpgPresidents recognize that when they win the election, they can select a cadre of about 6,000 people to help him or her “run the government.” The appointment process, however, is overly complex. What most presidents don’t realize is that when they take office, it will take at least a year if not more – at least one quarter of the President’s term office — to put those people in place. It then takes that team about another year to get up to speed.

Is there a better way?

The effort to fix the process needs to take place before a president takes office. And generally that’s not of interest to anyone running for office, and not of interest to any president finishing his term. Fixing it would be painful since it requires political capital to work with the Senate to streamline its procedures.

There have been nonpartisan efforts, especially before 2000, to update and streamline the process. The Brookings Institution sponsored a major project to reform the presidential appointment process and the RAND Corporation led a similar project targeted specifically at appointments in the Defense Department. Some progress was made fixing the process in the Executive Branch. According to the Brookings project director, Paul Light, little was accomplished in improving the Senate’s processes, which vary by each committee.

Interestingly, one solution seems to be to reduce the number of political appointees. Paul Light has been an advocate of this, and it seems to be supported by some academic research. Princeton University professor David Lewis found that career appointees seem to be better program managers.

But that may be only a partial solution. Another factor is understanding what kinds of people belong in the 6,000 jobs. Beyond the “Plum Book,” published every four years, there are few indications as to what each of these jobs require in terms of skills and capabilities. In the past, the Council for Excellence in Government has produced a “Prune Book” for the 45 or so most challenging jobs, but that doesn’t solve the labyrinth appointment process.

The interesting thing, though, is that even absent answers to these questions – or even who the nominees will be – there are already websites recommending people brush up their resumes. So the pressure to act quickly will be strong.

So even absent a flood of resumes, the next President will face at least three staffing issues immediately: Can the political nomination process be fixed? How many political appointees should there be? And, to improve the chances of getting the right talent in the right jobs, is there a set of detailed job descriptions for each of the 6,000 positions?

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