Center Blog

Acting Leaders: Unsung Heroes Who Keep the Government Running During Transition


November 30, 2016

Beth Gawne, Fellow, Partnership for Public Service



In 2008, newspaper headlines across the country read, “House Rejects Financial Rescue, Sending Stocks Plummeting” – Washington Post, and “U.S. Investing $250 Billion to Bolster Industry; DOW Surges 936 Points” – New York Times. These headlines revealed the state of the U.S. economy that the Obama administration inherited on day one—the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Leading the U.S. efforts to halt the economic collapse was the Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. In his first two months, however, Geithner was the only confirmed political appointee in the entire department, forcing him to make crucial decisions without the help of his leadership team.

This “home alone” experience was unsettling given the nation’s dire economic circumstances, but many Cabinet secretaries over the years have had to operate their departments for lengthy periods of time without a full complement of high-level political appointees.

To provide context, with every change in administration, approximately 4,000 political appointees are selected by the incoming president to serve in a variety of positions across the government. About 1,100 of these positions require Senate confirmation. Historically, the time to fill these appointed positions has taken anywhere from a few weeks to several months and sometimes much longer.

In fact, the process for getting incoming political leadership selected, vetted and confirmed has steadily increased with successive administrations. During President Obama’s first year in office, it took an average of 192 days per nominee. So how does the government function without these key leaders in place?

Well, thanks to the Presidential Transition Improvements Act of 2015, a provision now exists that requires agency heads to identify qualified career employees to act in “critical” political positions by September 15th of a presidential election year. This codifies a process that has been occurring in the government for years.

Tenure as an “acting” official can last from just a few months to more than a year depending on how long it takes to find and, in some cases, confirm a new political appointee. In fact, the Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 specifies that there will no limit on the number of days an acting official can serve in a Senate-confirmed position. Therefore, as a career official “acting” in a political capacity, preparing to serve for an extended period of time is a necessity.

Today, many designated career employees are stepping into acting positions as political appointees from the Obama administration begin to depart. As they assume these new roles, questions inevitably arise regarding decision-making authority, role clarity, and the politics and optics surrounding appropriate behavior.

The main role of an acting official is to provide continuity between administrations, maintain operations, deliver on the mission, facilitate a smooth and seamless leadership transition and deliver the organization in good shape for the incoming political appointee. Making sure these career leaders are prepared and properly trained is crucial to maintaining U.S. security and effective government operations during the handoff between administrations.

These acting leaders play critical roles for the incoming political leadership, and with their assistance, the inevitable “home alone” predicament can be less painful.

Additional resources

Additional resources


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