July 13, 2020

Help wanted: the critical job of selecting 4,000 presidential appointees

The Office of Presidential Personnel faces the herculean task of helping a president select about 4,000-political appointees at the beginning of a new administration and throughout a president’s four-year term. Jonathan McBride and Liza Wright, former directors of the PPO under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, respectively, join host David Marchick on Transition Lab to share their advice on how to land a political appointment and some of the challenges they faced managing the personnel operation.

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Read the highlights:

Marchick asked the two former PPO directors about the best way to apply for a politically appointed job. 

McBride: “To put it in a frame of reference, in the couple of days after the election in 2008, 253,000 people submitted resumes into the resume database. That’s not including people that already had been submitting during the campaign…Being in the database is particularly important, but people who have worked on the campaign and built relationships and have had some visibility and are known to be expert on something (have an advantage.) Raising your hands through whatever connection you have to the White House is also a good thing.” 

Wright:  “I always tell people to do your homework…It’s so helpful if they have taken the steps to really research what positions in the government they’re interested in, that they believe they’re qualified for…I think the more they can kind of help the process, the better. Because, it’s like the flood gates open in the beginning of any administration and the PPO office is overwhelmed.” 

Marchick asked if there are other ways to expedite the sometimes-lengthy appointment process?  

McBride:  “I would also visit the Partnership for Public Service’s (Center for Presidential Transition) website and find out about the things you can do in advance to prepare for the vetting process at different levels. One of the things you can do to speed your process is to have done a lot of work ahead of time, especially for Senate confirmed jobs. Having the paperwork and information available saves a lot of time because if you start that when you meet us, it adds a lot of time.” 

Marchick asked the former PPO directors about the scope of thwork and the difficulties they faced.  

Wright: “When you’re in the White House, it is one massive succession planning exercise on steroids. Not only are you bringing in essentially 4,000 people within the first few months of (a new) administration, but you’re also having to plan because the people are not going to stay. The average tenure is around 18 months. By the time you are placing the first round of people, it’s not too much longer until you’ve got to start thinking about the succession planning exercise all over again.”  

McBride:  “We had just over 50 people working kind of full time in our personnel office, but we also had people distributed throughout the agencies called White House liaisons…By comparison, we hired about as many people per year as my former employer BlackRock did, and their HR department is over 400 people…I think if you want to be able to search the whole country and find nontraditional candidates and convince them to come in and serve their government,…you need a broader reach and you have to come up with ways to do it, and it’s hard to do that with 50 people.”

Marchick asked about the most difficult jobseekers they encountered and how certain approaches can backfire. 

Wright: “There was one person that launched a campaign…I had literally 50 or 60 phone calls that were coming and letters being faxed in….One of my responsibilities was to handle the ambassadors. One time I had a husband and wife that came into the office and tried to pitch me on the idea of being ambassadors of neighboring countries… So, when I think about annoying, it just shows kind of a lack of judgment.” 

While a new president must fill some 4,000 political positions, a second term president faces a high turnover of personnel, including in top-tier jobs. Wright talked about her experience during President Bush’s second term. 

Wright: “I remember before the 2004 election I got called into the Oval Office and President Bush and I had a conversation with (Chief of Staff) Andy Card because there were about eight or nine Cabinet members that we were going to be replaced. That’s a lot. Two months before that election, we basically ramped up a kind of a transition effort. We had our lists ready to go so that right after the election we could…announce who those Cabinet members. We really treated it as a big transition…We went through all of the Senate confirmed positions.” 

Marchick asked if the job brought any major surprises. 

McBride: “The first [surprise] for me was the idea that on January 20th, somebody blows a whistle and everybody from the CEO to three levels down leaves an agency…It was really surprising to me how many people didn’t pay their taxes.” 

The two former PPO directors reflected on some of misconceptions about their job. 

Wright: A lot of people would say to me, `Wow, you’re the head of presidential personnel. You’re pretty popular.’ And I would say the exact opposite. Because at the end of the day, for every one position, there could be 20 or 30 plus candidates that all want the job…My mission was to find the very best people to serve this president who are the most qualified…It’s not always easy to do in such a highly political environment.” 

McBride: “You are delivering way more disappointment than you are happiness in a job like this. There’s an added element because we put people through a rather rigorous vetting process. There are plenty of times when you have to call somebody up and explain that they’re not going forward in the process, but you can’t tell them why because the FBI, IRS, all these people are involved (in the decision-making process).”