Given the increasing delays presidents face in getting senior leaders confirmed by the Senate, it is important to understand how long those officials remain in their roles once confirmed. While our previous analysis highlights year three as a time of high appointee turnover during  a president’s first term, incumbent presidents entering a second term face even greater challenges. 

Incumbent administrations transitioning to a second term have historically confronted significant headwinds. The fifth year can be encumbered by political opposition in Congress, and the departure of knowledgeable officials can make it even more difficult for an administration to achieve its policy goals. Without sufficient personnel and resources dedicated to second term personnel planning, two-term administrations will miss an important opportunity to gain early momentum following reelection. 

Our analysis examines the turnover of Senate confirmed presidential appointees during the second term of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in major departments and agencies, excluding ambassadors, U.S. marshals and attorneys. 

Turnover across terms

In year five, Bush and Obama experienced average annual turnover rates of 38% and 28% respectively, the highest in their entire presidencies. For context, Bush had 135 departures out of 353 tracked positions and Obama had 101 departures out 359 positions. For Obama, this was more than doubled the peak annual turnover in his first term (13%); for Bush, the second-term peak was nearly double the first term’s (20%). 

Years six through eight for both presidents exceeded or were comparable to their third-year turnover levels, highlighting the sustained volatility in personnel departures throughout the second term. 

Personnel turnover in the fifth year is an early management obstacle for administrations starting a second term. These findings demonstrate the urgency of second term planning if incumbent administrations are to expeditiously fill senior leadership positions as they become vacant. 

Note: Data includes Senate-confirmed positions excluding ambassadors, U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals. Yearly average turnover is weighted by the number of positions tracked for each president. 

Second-term turnover by department 

In every department, the Bush and Obama administrations experienced significantly higher turnover during the second term compared to the first. The highest turnover rate was at the Department of Education under Bush at 128%, meaning that there were 23 departures for 18 tracked positions during his time in office. Several other departments under Bush also experienced turnover rates that exceeded 100%, including the departments of Housing and Urban Development (109%), Justice (104%), Transportation (113%) and State (115%). These departments experienced several departures from the same position within one term. Departures at assistant secretary level at Bush’s Department of Education were frequent, as officials rarely remained for more than two years. 

While the Obama administration had relatively lower levels of turnover, all departments exceeded 50% turnover except for the Department of Labor (47%). For Obama, the Department of Transportation had a peak turnover rate of 100%, nearly 10 times the turnover compared to his first term (13%). 

Note: Data covers Senate-confirmed positions in executive CFO Act agencies, excluding ambassadors, U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals. The time period covered in the first term is from the beginning of the administration through April 1 of the fourth year. 

An incumbent administration must balance the difficult tasks of managing ongoing government operations while preparing prior to the election for a transition to a possible second term. The rigor and planning needed to successfully staff some of the highest-ranking positions in the executive branch is critical for a successful second term administration.

This blog post was authored by Husam AlZubaidy, an associate at the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition. 

This week marks the beginning of Pride month, a time in which we reflect on the history and achievements of the LGBTQ+ community and reaffirm our unwavering support for equality and inclusivity. The Partnership for Public Service and Center for Presidential Transition honor the service of countless LGBTQ+ public servants who have served across administrations.

The service of LGBTQ+ individuals in the federal government has not always been celebrated. Beginning in the late 1940s, in the midst of the Cold War, there was a “Lavendar Scare” that focused on purging the federal civil service, along with government contractors, of gays and lesbians. President Dwight Eisenhower formalized the policy in April of 1953 with Executive Order 10450 which authorized the investigation and firing of civil servants for “sexual perversion.” Due to this policy, tens of thousands of civil servants were investigated and thousands lost their careers.

The policy of targeting gay and lesbian civil servants continued for decades. It was not until 1975 that the Civil Service Commission ended the ban on gays and lesbians in the federal civil service and 1977 that the Department of State ended its ban within the Foreign Service. It took another two decades until discrimination based on sexual orientation was banned in granting access to classified information, when President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12968 in 1995.

Even as formal constraints on the service of LGBTQ+ individuals were removed over time, LGBTQ+ individuals continued to face opposition because of their identities. Roberta Achtenberg, the first openly LGBTQ+ Senate-confirmed appointee who won approval in 1993, and James Hormel, the first openly LGBTQ+ ambassador who took office through a recess appointment in 1999, faced questions about their ability to serve based on their identities alone.

Despite obstacles, openly LGBTQ+ individuals have served in appointed leadership roles in each of the last five administrations. Clinton led the way by making the first nominations of openly LGBT individuals, appointing about 140 to serve in his administration. President Barack Obama nearly doubled that number, appointing over 250 openly LGBTQ+ officials during his administration.

Milestones of LGBTQ+ Service and Leadership in the Federal Government

Biden has appointed more openly LGBTQ+ officials than any of his predecessors. As of October of 2023, Biden had appointed over 340 openly LGBTQ+ officials across the executive branch. Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, which works to advance LGBTQ+ elected and appointed government officials, described the Biden administration as “the most LGBTQ-inclusive in history…”

Our government is best when it is representative of its people and inclusive to all. Despite discrimination and bigotry, LGBTQ+ individuals have always strived to serve their government and country. Thanks to social and legal progress over time, the government benefits more than ever from the leadership of LGBTQ+ officials.

Given the long hours and tough responsibilities at Cabinet agencies, presidents can expect departures among Senate-confirmed leadership. While turnover is expected, high departure rates can pose significant challenges for day-to-day agency operations and long-term planning. 

Turnover in the modern context is more troublesome than ever before. Our research shows that Senate confirmation times have grown for each subsequent administration while nomination success rates have progressively declined. This means that, when agency leaders depart, it will take significantly longer to replace them than it did for previous presidents. As a result, many positions remain vacant for extended periods of time. 

Using our political appointee tracker and other data sources, we have examined the rates of Senate-confirmed appointee turnover during the four most recent administrations. As we look to personnel changes following the November election—whether it be a second term for the incumbent or a new administration—a retrospective on turnover helps put recent personnel challenges in context.  

We analyzed turnover among presidential nominees in major departments and agencies,1 excluding U.S. marshals and attorneys. To make an equivalent comparison with the ongoing Biden administration, we looked at each president’s first term up until April 1 of their fourth year in office.

Total Departures10573 94 34 
Tracked Positions353 359 385 392 
Total Turnover Rate30% 20% 24% 9% 
Note: Data covers Senate-confirmed positions in executive CFO Act agencies, excluding ambassadors, U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals. The time period covered is from the beginning of the administration through April 1 of the fourth year.  

The Bush administration experienced the highest total turnover at 30% during this period of time. Trump and Obama had lower and more comparable turnover rates at 24% and 20%, respectively. Biden experienced significantly less turnover than his predecessors at 9%. 

Note: Data includes Senate-confirmed positions excluding ambassadors, U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals. The time period from the beginning of the administration through April 1 of the fourth year.

Looking closer at these departments by president, the total turnover rates during the Bush and Obama administrations (59% and 30% respectively) were greatly impacted by Treasury Department departures. As for the Department for Veterans Affairs, Bush and Trump received the highest rates of turnover (50% and 33% respectively). The Department of Commerce—despite undergoing some of the highest rates of turnover on average—did not experience any turnover during the Biden administration through this past April. Moreover, there were no departures of Biden appointees during this period at the Environmental Protection Agency, or at the departments of Education and Energy. Similarly, the Trump administration had no turnover of its appointees at the Department of Agriculture despite turnover rates at other departments. 

The departments of Transportation and Homeland Security also highlight differences. Trump experienced roughly five times more turnover than previous administrations at DHS (53%), the second highest rate of any other department. As for Biden, the DOT experienced the second highest rate of total turnover so far during his presidency (17%), exceeding two previous administrations but trailing the Bush administration (38%). For context, DHS had an average turnover rate of 21% while DOT’s rate was 20% during the past four administrations. While Trump had more than double the average turnover at DHS, Biden remains below the DOT average. 

Note: Data covers Senate-confirmed positions in executive CFO Act agencies, excluding ambassadors, U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals. The time period covered is from the beginning of the administration through April 1 of the fourth year. 

For each administration, turnover peaked during year three with relatively low turnover in other years. Compared to recent presidents, Biden has maintained low turnover, rising only to 6% during his third year. Obama was the next lowest in year three turnover, but the rate was nearly double at 13%. The second year of administrations has had low turnover in general, with the highest turnover occurring during the Trump administration (6%). For all four presidents, the first year had turnover rates at or below 1%. 

Recent success during the Biden administration at limiting turnover rates is an important development in light of increasing confirmation delays. Even as turnover appears to have tempered during the current administration, there are greater ramifications for each departure as it becomes more difficult to confirm a replacement. 

The challenger candidate in the 2024 election must consider how to staff an entire administration, but even the incumbent candidate must take proactive steps to avoid trends from previous second term presidents to retain leaders in key positions in order to achieve policy goals. 

1 As defined by the Chief Financial Officers (CFO) Act of 1990 (Public Law 101–576).

This blog post was authored by Husam AlZubaidy, an associate at the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition.

The Senate confirmation process for executive branch nominees has become more difficult during the last 40 years.

President Joe Biden’s nominees have taken nearly three times longer to be confirmed during his first three years compared to the nominees in the George H.W. Bush administration.

Confirmation delays continued to grow under the Trump administration and have worsened further under Biden. Delays faced by Biden’s nominees in the first three years were 13% longer than Trump’s nominees.

Beyond confirmation times, presidents during the last 40 years have seen fewer and fewer of their nominees confirmed by the Senate. Through year three, Presidents Donald Trump and Biden each had approximately 150 fewer nominees confirmed compared to President Barack Obama and 250 to 300 fewer nominees confirmed compared to Presidents H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The broken process leaves critical positions vacant for long periods of time, which is a disservice to the public in carrying out the fundamental roles of government, from national security to infrastructure to health and safety.

Using an analysis of our Political Appointee Tracker, we have been able to gain a clearer view of vacancy rates under the Biden and Trump administrations.

From our analysis of the state of vacancies in Cabinet Departments as of March 19th in the fourth year of the last two administrations, we found that:

Vacancies are widespread across Cabinet departments

As of March 19, 2024, 98 of 547 Cabinet department positions (18%) followed on our tracker were vacant in the Biden administration. At the same point in time, 157 of 526 Cabinet department positions (30%) followed on our tracker were vacant during the Trump administration. 

Some Cabinet departments have alarmingly high rates of vacancies

Four Cabinet departments had 30% or more of their positions vacant as of March 19, 2024. At the equivalent date during Trump’s fourth year, nine Cabinet departments had 30% or more of their positions vacant. For both administrations, the Department of Homeland Security had the highest vacancy rate at 35% in the Biden administration and 65% in the Trump administration. The departments of Housing and Urban Development and Justice also have consistently had high rates of vacancies, totaling more than 30% across the last two administrations.

Note: Excludes U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals

Many Cabinet positions have yet to be filled more than three years into last two administrations

As of March 19, 2024, 50 Cabinet positions (9%) had never been filled with a Senate confirmed appointee since the beginning of the Biden administration. At the same point in time, 66 Cabinet positions (13%) had never been filled with a Senate confirmed appointee since the beginning of the Trump administration. The Department of Justice has been particularly affected by this problem, with over 25% of Senate confirmed positions never having someone confirmed by the Senate through March 19 of the fourth year of the last two administrations.

Note: Excludes U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals

Nineteen Cabinet positions were not filled by either the Trump or Biden administration by March 19 of their fourth year

Across the Trump and Biden administrations, there are 19 positions in common that remained vacant during the first three years of each administration. Four of these positions are the chief financial officers at the departments of Agriculture, Homeland Security, State and Treasury. The list also includes high-level positions like the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Positions Not Filled by the Fourth Year of Each of the Last Two Administrations

Chief financial officerDepartment of Agriculture
Assistant secretary for civil rightsDepartment of Agriculture
Assistant secretary for communications and outreachDepartment of Education
Assistant secretary for planning and evaluationDepartment of Health and Human Services
Chief financial officerDepartment of Homeland Security
Director, Immigration and Customs EnforcementDepartment of Homeland Security
Assistant attorney general for the tax divisionDepartment of Justice
Deputy administrator, Drug Enforcement AdministrationDepartment of Justice
Commissioner, U.S. Parole Commission (2)Department of Justice
Special counsel for immigration-related unfair employment practicesDepartment of Justice
Chairman, Foreign Claims Settlement CommissionDepartment of Justice
Chief financial officerDepartment of State
Coordinator for threat reduction programsDepartment of State
Ambassador, BahamasDepartment of State
Ambassador, CubaDepartment of State
Director, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and EnforcementDepartment of the Interior
Special trustee for American IndiansDepartment of the Interior
Chief financial officerDepartment of the Treasury

These findings highlight the challenges in filling certain key roles in government. Reform of the confirmation process is urgently needed, starting with a reduction in the number of appointments subject to Senate approval.

Chris Piper is a manager at the Center for Presidential Transition.

Keep satellites in orbit! Keep the lead out of the drinking water! Keep your cool, even though you have no idea, as a political appointee, whether you will have a job next year. This is the dilemma appointees face in an election year.

A political appointee’s job is always busy and never easy, especially in the lead up to a presidential election. An election may mean continued employment (if the incumbent wins) or a sudden date with the door (if the challenger prevails). Either way, uncertainty can create stress and campaign battles only serve to increase such anxiety.

Below is some advice, sourced from former officials, for political appointees about maintaining sanity and staff morale during the months ahead.

1. Deal fairly and honestly with the agency transition requirements.

Political appointees must model professionalism and good faith as they support efforts by career officials to prepare for a possible transition as required by law. Agencies must meet a series of transition requirements including preparing briefings and written materials. This will help ensure a smooth transition of power if there is a change of administration.

2. Collaborate with top leadership to plan for a potential second term.

At the same time, an incumbent administration should be preparing for a second term if victorious. Political appointees should fulfill any requests to support transition planning while continuing to do their jobs.

3. Prepare succession plans.

The start of a new presidential term triggers high turnover in political roles, even if an incumbent wins. Political leaders should direct agencies to prepare lines of succession and identify potential acting officials to be ready for any departures.

4. Identify high-performers and allow opportunities for advancement.

If the incumbent wins, election year turnover can create openings for top performers to advance within the political ranks. Top appointees should identify and offer opportunities for strong performers to stay during and after the transition period.

5. Communicate clearly with colleagues.

Given the external turmoil and election uncertainty, clear internal communication about continued expectations is essential for maintaining trust among employees.

6. Share success stories internally and externally.

Members of the civil service faces many challenges. Sharing stories of success can boost staff morale despite outside pressures.

7. Create or join a supportive community.

Participation in communities with those who have the same professional or personal identities can be an opportunity to share struggles and successes, and provide support across silos or lines of reporting. Affinity groups or professional convenings, such as those facilitated by the Partnership for Public Service, are great examples of these.

8. Take this opportunity to review and publicize leave and self-care benefits.

Appointees should create a culture that encourages their entire organization to make use of their vacation, sick leave and other benefits.

9. Show your people some love.

Small gestures can mean a lot. Political appointees should share invitations to White House gatherings when available such as the upcoming White House Easter Egg Roll or other administration events. This is also a great time to plan retreats for staff to bond, share strategies and refocus on their mission.

10. Show yourself some love.

Take a break from the news. Take a walk. Take a deep breath. The next few months may be difficult and stressful, so do what you need to get through it and support those around you.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month both in the U.S. and worldwide, it’s a good time to examine the contributions women have made in the federal government. The Biden administration has seen a number of historic firsts for women: In 2021, Kamala Harris became the country’s first woman vice president, Janet Yellen became the first woman secretary of the Treasury and Avril Haines became the first woman director of National Intelligence.

Despite these wins, there’s still a long way to go. There are still important leadership positions that have never been held by a woman. For example, not only has no woman ever been president or chief justice of the Supreme Court, but two Cabinet agencies have never had a woman secretary: the departments of the Defense and Veterans Affairs.

The following are 10 important positions in the federal government that have never been filled by a woman.

1. President – None of the 45 individuals who served as president have been women. Hillary Clinton was the first woman to be nominated by a major political party in 2016.

2. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – Twenty-one men and no women have filled the most senior position in the U.S. armed forces since its creation in 1949.

3. Chief Justice of Supreme Court – Only six justices in the more than 230-year history of the Supreme Court have been women, and none have been appointed chief justice.

4. Chief of Staff to the President – Since President Harry Truman appointed the first chief of staff in 1946—called the assistant to the president at the time—none of the 31 people to hold this position have been women.

5. Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation – The first leader of the FBI was appointed in 1908, and none of the 20 directors (including those in an acting capacity) have been women.

6. Director of the National Security Agency – Women have never held the highest-ranking position in the NSA since the intelligence agency was founded in 1952.

7. Secretary of Defense – The Department of Defense has never been led by a woman since its inception in 1947.

8. Secretary of Veterans Affairs – The Department of Veterans Affairs was formed in 1989, and all 11 of the Senate-confirmed officials who led the agency have been men.

9. Senate Majority Leader – No Senate majority leader has been female since that role was created in the 1920s.In fact, no Senate minority leader has been a woman during that period either.

10. NASA Administrator – None of the 14 people who have been confirmed to lead the agency since its founding in 1958.

This list is not exhaustive. Other important positions, such as the ambassadorships to China, Israel, and Russia have not been held by a woman. Other positions have only had a woman official recently.

As the country honors women’s history, those who have served as leaders of our democracy deserve recognition and appreciation. At the same time, their absence from key positions in government, and thus from critical conversations in domestic and foreign policy, is worth highlighting. As President Joe Biden proclaimed, “Throughout history, the vision and achievements of powerful women have strengthened our Nation and opened the doors of opportunity wider for all of us.”

Extensive research indicates diverse and inclusive teams produce better outcomes, and that well-qualified women are ready to lead. While we have made progress in the last 100 years, more work needs to be done to ensure the top levels of our government resemble the country they serves.