Staffing the President's Team

By James P. Pfiffner

The foundation for good management in the national government is effective leadership at both the political and career levels. Presidents do not run the government alone, they must work with their political appointees, who must in turn work with career executives who implement the president’s policy agenda. This memo addresses the major challenges that face the president-elect’s personnel operation and later the White House Office of Presidential Personnel: choosing the best people for presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation, acting in a timely fashion, and working with the career services to carry out the president’s priorities and execute the law.


Choosing the Best People for the Job

The presidential nominee of each party must begin to put together a transition recruitment team in the summer of the election year; it must be operating at full speed immediately after the election. The leadership of this team will form the core of the Office of Presidential Personnel (OPP) once the president is inaugurated.

The criteria for selecting candidates are multiple and demand the balancing of numerous factors, substantive and political. The most important criterion should be: is the person qualified for the position? Effective performance in similar positions is a good indicator of qualifications. These might be previously held PAS positions, or large-scale managerial jobs in the private or nonprofit sectors. 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 positions that 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 1500 per day, and the Obama administration fielded more than 300,000 applications. 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-elect, and later president, for a final choice of whom to nominate.

From the spoils system of the 19th century to the thousands of political appointments available to today’s presidents (including lower level positions), loyal partisans expect to be appointed to positions in the new administration. Requests to appoint specific individuals can be expected from Congress, the political party, friends of the president, and even the family of the president. The Office of Presidential Personnel must be prepared to deflect the requests for 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 in the Appointments Process

Before a nominee can be formally nominated, he or she must survive vetting by the recruitment operation, the national security investigation by the FBI, the IRS, and financial scrutiny by the Office of Government Ethics. When these vettings are finished in the executive branch, the president sends a formal nomination to the Senate and it is referred to the appropriate committee, which undertakes its own vetting. The vetting process can be vexatious for potential nominees; myriad forms must be filled out, and often counsel must be hired to ensure that financial records are accurately reported.

In addition, Senate hearings can be challenging for the nominee and require careful preparation. Anne Joseph O’Connell has calculated that between 1981 and 2014, the average time for confirmation, was 88.5 days, but it was 127.2 days for the Obama administration. She also calculated that for the same time period, twenty five percent of nominees submitted to the Senate were not confirmed. The average time for failed appointments 179.7 days (O’Connell, 2015).

Causes for delays in nominations, include inadequate pre-election planning, inadequate 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. Despite delays in the Senate confirmation process, the more important cause of delays in filling positions is the executive branch vetting and selection process. In the Obama administration, the average number of days it took to nominate appointees was 131 days, but the lag due to Senate confirmation process was 61 days (O’Connell, 2010).


Placing Management Teams in the Departments and Agencies

In order for the president’s policy agenda to be effectively carried out and the executive branch to be well managed, teamwork in the departments and agencies must be orchestrated. This goal can be undermined by conflict between departments and agencies and the Office of President Personnel. The White House staff tends to focus on loyalty to the president, and is suspicious of making appointments of people who are sponsored by members of Congress or cabinet secretaries. White House staffers suspect that cabinet secretaries are likely to recruit people who are loyal to the cabinet secretary but not necessarily to the president.

From the perspective of the cabinet secretary, the issue is building a management team for the department. Those in the cabinet are suspicious that the White House Office of Presidential Personnel will weigh too heavily the political service of the appointee and will neglect the expertise, managerial ability, and compatibility of the nominee with the other executives in the department.

Former Secretary of Defense, Frank Carlucci, characterized the cabinet secretary 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” (Pfiffner, 1996).

So OPP must balance the need for loyalty to the president with the experience and competence of the nominee and the need for the cabinet secretary to recruit his or her management team. The best approach is for both sides to understand the requirements of the other and consult with them. Political appointees play a vital role in American government, since they 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 agency tasks and relationships that can facilitate the provision of budget resources and necessary political support for agency programs. In contrast, career executives are more likely to have program and policy expertise based on management experience in the federal government and the agencies in which they work. Their long familiarity with the agency and its budgets and process 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 important to the smooth functioning of the government.

Best practices in the private sector include careful attention to “onboarding” new executives through careful orientation to their new positions, the organization’s objectives, and the policy making process. In order for a new administration to hit the ground running, new administrations should have systematic plans to bring new appointees on board. Departments and agencies should prepare orientations specifically designed for the duties and requirements of their new positions. But the new administration should also include appointees as well as career executives in team building meetings across agencies so that the new administration acts as a team, along with career executives, in implementing the policy agenda of the new administration


Recommended Actions

In sum, the lessons learned in recruiting presidential appointees include:

1.     Recruit those most qualified for the position and deflect requests for the appointment of candidates who do not have appropriate skills for the job;

2.     Begin recruitment efforts well in advance and streamline the appointments process; and

3.     The president’s recruiters should work cooperatively with cabinet secretaries, and political appointees should work cooperatively with career executives.



O’Connell, A. J. (2015). “Shortening agency and judicial vacancies through filibuster reform.” Duke Law Journal, 64: 1651-1652.

O’Connell, A. J. (2010). “Waiting for leadership.” Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

Pfiffner, J. P. (1996). The strategic Presidency: Hitting the ground gunning, 2nd ed. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1996.

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