Seeking a political appointment: Seven tips from a former special assistant to the president for presidential personnel

August 2, 2020

By Ed Moy

This post is part of the Partnership’s Ready to Serve series. Ready to Serve is a centralized resource for people who aspire to serve in a presidential administration as a political appointee.

You want to join an administration as a political appointee, but you don’t know where to start. You are not alone. Here are some tips that will give you a leg up.

It’s not about you. It’s about serving your country. The gold standard that each administration strives for are appointees who want to serve the public with honor and distinction, not for personal ambition or gain. President John F. Kennedy said it best: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Do your homework. The political appointments process is certainly different, maybe even mysterious to most of us. The more research you do on where you might fit, the better your chances for being considered. What substantive (education, agriculture, diplomacy, energy) and functional (public affairs, legal, running programs, budget) expertise do you have? How does that translate into specific departments, agencies and positions? What level (Schedule C, Senior Executive Service, presidential appointment, presidential appointment with Senate confirmation) is appropriate for you? A helpful resource is the Plum Book, which is produced by the Government Publishing Office and offers a snapshot of all political appointments.

Understand the roles of the Office of Presidential Personnel and the White House liaisons. The White House personnel office and the White House liaisons in departments and agencies work together and function like executive recruiters on behalf of the president. The PPO leads the search for all appointments that require the president’s direct approval. The White House liaisons lead the search for all other appointments in their departments or agencies. And like an executive recruiter, the goal is to find the best candidates, not to find a job for every applicant or provide career counseling for each candidate.

Personnel is policy. Presidents have the ability to appoint people into leadership positions throughout the federal government to implement their policies. Ideally, administrations are looking for candidates that meet three criteria:

  • Have policies that align with the president.
  • Have the qualifications and experience to implement those policies.
  • Work well with others in the administration. 

If you meet all three criteria, you greatly improve your chances of being considered.

Follow the administration’s application process. Every administration determines its own unique process for hiring. A fair number of candidates think these processes don’t apply to them – they are just for the “unimportant people.” For the administration, this says a lot about the applicant. Whether it is applying through the transition team or White House websites, or sending resumes directly to a department, agency or the White House, follow the process.

Use recommenders judiciously. A few quality recommenders can be helpful, but only if you have done your homework and meet the three criteria mentioned above. But having too many recommendations can work against you. (I recall having one candidate having 200+ individuals send me letters or call me.)

Be patient. A new administration has approximately 4,000 jobs to fill immediately and between 100,000 and 250,000 applicants. This means the personnel office will not be able to provide frequent or timely updates. Similarly, there isn’t time to answer questions one by one as they come to you. However, a judicious “check in” from time to time is appropriate. On the other hand, calling, texting and emailing a couple of times a day is not. 

Staffing the government is hard and complex work, and there are many reasons why an applicant may not be asked in for an interview or selected. Don’t be discouraged. It is routine practice to hold on to applicants’ resumes for duration of an administration and to approach individuals for a position they may not have been seeking. To that end, it behooves you to stay in touch with the White House liaisons and the personnel office and to express your willingness to be flexible regarding future consideration.

Follow these tips and you will have an advantage over the others clamoring for a political appointment. Doing so will reflect well on you as an applicant and increase your odds. Being selected to serve as a political appointee is a complex process that takes time. But hang in there – having an opportunity to serve your country is worth it.

Ed Moy serves as a corporate director or advisor for both publicly and privately held companies, and in the nonprofit sector. He served as the special assistant to the president for presidential personnel from 2001 to 2006 and later served as the director of the United States Mint from 2006 to 2011.