Creating Quality Leadership and Management

Recommendations and Actions

QUAL03: Strengthen the Corps of Senior Leaders


Over the past decade, the General Accounting Office has examined the management of most major federal departments and agencies. Two findings are consistent: good management requires stable leadership in key positions, and most government institutions fall short of that mark.(1)

In the Jacksonian era of the 1830's, it was believed that anyone could fill a government job.(2) However, with its immense size, budget, and complexity, the executive branch today requires a tremendous amount of executive talent to lead and manage it. A combination of political appointees and career executives provides this leadership and management.

The President relies on about 3,000 political appointees to promote his policies, make policy decisions on his behalf, and ensure that the President's policies are carried out by the entire civil service. The President also depends on about 8,000 career executives to provide the continuity, knowledge, and institutional memory needed to implement his policies.

The career executives are members of the Senior Executive Service (SES). Political appointees include Presidential Appointments with Senate Confirmation (PAS) who hold very high-level positions such as Cabinet secretaries; Presidential Appointments (PA) who generally hold positions on boards and commissions; non-career SES; and Schedule C's, who often hold mid-level positions and serve in policy- related positions or as confidential assistants to other political appointees.(3) Generally speaking, the number of political appointments has increased over the past three decades while the number of civil servants has remained about the same.(4)

Political appointees have relatively short stints in government--most leave before two years are completed--and are often referred to as "in-and-outers," as illustrated in figure 1.(5)

This lack of continuity has been decried by GAO, which sees continual turnover in top positions as one of the root causes of management problems in the federal government.(6) There are several options. For example, a career SES member can receive a political appointment and retain the right to revert to his or her career status after serving in the political appointment slot.(7) While this authority is not widely used, the flexibility built into the existing personnel system permits the use of career employees as a source of qualified leadership.(8) This is one way of providing needed continuity. Other options include finding ways to improve the process to speed the appointment of political appointees, or to find ways of getting a commitment from nominees to stay in place for longer periods of time.

Need for Change

There are not enough qualified leaders in place for long enough periods of time to effectively manage our complex government.(9) The root of this problem is the selection, placement, training, and development of both career and non-career appointments. In addition, the relationship between these two corps of senior managers plays a crucial role in managing the executive branch effectively.

When a new Administration comes to office, it must quickly deal with numerous critical issues--not the least of which is filling vacancies in political positions throughout the government. The political appointment process is vital to the success or failure of a presidency. It is an arduous process of selection, clearance, and confirmation. According to Laurence Thompson, Assistant Comptroller General, "No modern administration has yet fully succeeded in developing a set of initial staffing procedures that are comprehensive, timely, or adequately related to the new president's immediate policy objectives."(10)

Lack of Job Descriptions.

One key obstacle to achieving an effective political appointment process is the lack of any descriptions of responsibilities and qualifications for each position.(11) Imagine the tremendous task of the staff of the Presidential Personnel Office. They must fill over 3,000 positions--over 500 of which are critical to the management of the government--without any institutional memory and only scant information as to what all those positions entail.(12) Every four years congressional committees publish a report--commonly referred to as the "Plum Book"--that lists all non-career positions.(13) The Council for Excellence in Government, a nonpartisan organization, publishes the "Prune Book," which contains a list of qualifications needed to successfully meet the duties of about 50 key subcabinet jobs.(14) However, there is no thorough listing of the duties of the roughly 500 senior-level political positions and the general requirements of these positions.

The "Vetting" Process.

A second obstacle in the political appointment process is the "vetting" process, which includes background investigations, financial disclosures, conflict of interest clearances, and confirmation hearings. The increasing complexity of this process has played a major role in delaying the placement of political appointees. One veteran journalist laments:

In the time I have been in Washington the vetting, and in some respects, harassing and humiliating of people about to enter the public service have become increasingly detailed, comprehensive and intrusive, often unfair and equally irrelevant to their suitability for the job.(15)

The President's Commission on the Federal Appointment Process addressed the issue of the complexity of the forms that political appointees must fill out: the financial disclosure form (SF-278), the Personal Data Statement (White House), the FBI personal history form (SF-86) and forms required by Senate committees.(16) The purpose of the vetting process is to set standards for the political appointees and to make them publicly accountable.(17) However, the current process also impedes the timely placement of appointees, which in turn has appreciable management consequences. Figure 2 shows that the amount of time required to complete the appointment process has been steadily increasing.

Long-standing vacancies in top positions seriously disrupt the smooth operations of the government and make management improvement exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.(18) Private companies would never leave major leadership and management positions vacant for months or years, but such longstanding vacancies have become all too common in the federal government. Figure 3 on the next page illustrates the void that occurs during a change of administration. Clearly, however, these vacancies are not solely tied to the change of administration.

Lack of Familiarity with the Federal Government.

Another attribute of the political appointment process that affects the government's operations is the background of political appointees. Many of them have been very successful in the private sector and their experiences are an asset to the government. However, a good number of appointees are unfamiliar with the workings of the federal government and Washington. Since the Eisenhower administration, there has been a recognized need for political appointees to attend an orientation and follow-on seminars.(19) However, the methods for carrying this out have not been institutionalized and must be re-developed with each new administration.

Poor Relations Between Career and Political Staffs.

Another significant factor hampering good leadership and management of the federal government is the generally poor relationship between political appointees and career leaders and managers. Political appointees and career executives historically have distrusted one another. Civil servants often become disenchanted by the rapid turnover of political appointees and the placement of political appointees in positions that may appear more suited for qualified career employees.(20) Furthermore, some political appointees sometimes do not believe that career public servants will carry out the President's policies adequately. As the National Commission on the Public Service (known as the Volcker Commission) stated in its 1989 report, it is the responsibility of both career and non-career federal executives to improve their working relationship.(21)


1. Establish qualification guidance for selected senior political appointee positions. (1,2)

The White House Presidential Personnel Office, in coordination with departments and agencies, and with the assistance of the Office of Personnel Management, should create a written statement of the standard duties and recommended experience requirements for each PAS and other key leadership and management positions, similar to those in the "Prune Book" published by the Council for Excellence in Government. This can be used as a tool to expedite the determination of requirements and duties of critical political appointments. This should not be considered an inflexible checklist of qualifications required of each candidate for a political appointment, but rather as a resource for each new administration.

2. Provide adequate orientation and ongoing management training to all political appointees and their career SES counterparts. (1,2)

The White House Presidential Personnel Office, OPM, and agencies should ensure that all political appointees receive an adequate orientation to acclimate them to the federal government and allow the administration to convey its policies and priorities. A handbook should be published for both career and political leaders to supplement this education process.(22)

Management education, where needed, should be available to politically appointed executives and managers to provide them with the management techniques suited to the unique needs of the federal government and the priorities of the President.(23)

Career and political executives should attend orientation and other programs together whenever possible to open dialogue between these two groups. Conferences held in the mid-1980's for career and non- career political appointees were considered very successful.(24) The Clinton administration has begun conducting orientations for PAS appointees, career and non-career SES members, and Schedule C appointees. This should be institutionalized.

Cross References to Other NPR Accompanying Reports

Reinventing Human Resource Management, HRM11: Strengthen the Senior Executive Service So That It Becomes a Key Element in the Governmentwide Culture Change Effort.

Mission-Driven, Results-Oriented Budgeting, BGT01: Develop Performance Agreements with Senior Political Leadership that Reflect Organizational and Policy Goals.

Executive Office of the President, EOP11: Improve the Presidential Transition Process.


1. See U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), Service to the Public: How Effective and Responsive is the Government?, GAO/T-HRD-91-26 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. General Accounting Office [GAO], May 8, 1991).

2. Pfiffner, James, "Strangers in a Strange Land: Orienting New Presidential Appointees," in Mackenzie, G. Calvin, ed., The In-and- Outers: Presidential Appointees and Transient Government in Washington (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), p. 143.

3. An additional category of appointees, judges, is excluded from this discussion because they are in the judicial branch of government.

4. National Commission on the Public Service (Volcker Commission), Leadership for America: Rebuilding the Public Service (Washington, D.C., 1989), p. 170.

5. See Mackenzie, The In-and-Outers.

6. U.S. General Accounting Office, Government Management Issues, GAO/OCG-93-3TR (Washington, D.C.: GAO, December 1992), p. 30.

7. P.L. 95-454.

8. See NPR Accompanying Report Reinventing Human Resource Management, HRM11: Strengthen the Senior Executive Service So That It Becomes a Key Element in the Governmentwide Culture Change Effort, for a more in-depth discussion of career executives.

9. National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), Leadership in Jeopardy: The Fraying of the Presidential Appointments System (Washington, D.C., November 1985), pp. 4-5. See also GAO, Government Management Issues, pp. 30-32.

10. See GAO, Service to the Public.

11. See President's Commission on the Federal Appointment Process, statement by James Pfiffner, October 2, 1990, p. 42, and "Recommendations," p. 7 in Report of the President's Commission on the Federal Appointment Process (Washington, D.C., December 1990); NAPA, p. 9; Volcker Commission, p. 180; and letter from Paul Light, Professor, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, to Senator John Glenn, August 3, 1992.

12. Ibid.

13. See U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Government Policy and Supporting Positions (Washington, D.C., November 10, 1992). See also U.S. Congress, House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

14. See Trattner, John H., ed., The 1992 Prune Book (Washington, D.C.: Council for Excellence in Government, 1992).

15. Greenfield, Meg, "Has Vetting Become Harassment?," Newsweek (July 19, 1993), p. 62.

16. Report of President's Commission on the Federal Appointment Process, p. 6.

17. Ibid.

18. GAO, Service to the Public, p. 5.

19. Pfiffner, Strangers in a Strange Land, p. 143.

20. Volcker Commission, pp. 175, 170-171.

21. Ibid., p.176.

22. The National Academy of Public Administration published a handbook in 1988, and the Office of Personnel Management is currently drafting a revision.

23. Preston, Edward, Human Resources Development Group, U.S. Office of Personnel Management, "Orienting Presidential Appointees: An Essential White House Task," Washington, D.C., undated, p. 3.

24. Interview with Rosslyn Kleeman, July 30, 1993, and interview with Edward Preston, August 6, 1993.

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