By Emma Jones and Christina Condreay
For most people, the only way to find out who is serving in the top decision-making positions in government is to reference a document called the Plum Book. Unfortunately, this document has significant procedural and factual problems and could be greatly improved.
The Plum Book remains the best source of valuable information about our senior government leaders, including names, position titles, salary information and term expiration dates. It contains information on more than 4,000 political appointees – about 1,200 of whom are subject to Senate confirmation – along with thousands of other jobs filled by senior career officials in the federal civil service.
However, the Plum Book is only published every four years. This means that information about some positions is outdated before it is even made available to the public. Even more problematic, the most recent version of the Plum Book contains numerous errors and shortcomings. Here are three of the biggest mistakes in the latest Plum Book published on Dec. 1, 2020:
1. Some agencies are omitted without explanation.
The following agencies appear in the 2016 Plum Book, but not in the 2020 edition. These organizations remain active and are funded. Combined, they have about a dozen presidentially appointed positions requiring Senate confirmation and between 60 and 100 positions not requiring Senate confirmation.
- Department of Agriculture Office of the Inspector General.
- Office of the Director for National Intelligence.
- Administrative Conference of the United States.
- Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (United States Access Board).
- Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council.
- International Boundary Commission: United States and Canada.
- Presidio Trust.
- Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
- Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission.
2. The Plum Book is missing positions.
Other agencies appear in the 2020 Plum Book, but are missing key positions. Agencies with incomplete position totals include the National Endowment for the Arts, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and the United States Postal Service. Scholars at Vanderbilt University have identified additional positions that were missing from both the 2016 and 2020 Plum Books. In total, hundreds of positions are not included in the 2020 Plum Book.
3. The appendix does not match the rest of the document.
The 2020 Plum Book contains appointment information for 170 agencies, while Appendix 1 provides summary counts for 158 distinct organizations. The 12 agencies excluded from the appendix include four legislative branch agencies and the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation. Additionally, the last six agencies listed alphabetically in the Plum Book are also missing from the appendix in addition to part of the White House that employs 82 people.
The 2020 Plum Book also only counts filled positions in the Senior Executive Service, a change from previous editions. This means that roughly 1,100 vacant positions out of about 8,000 of the government’s senior executives are not counted in the agency position totals listed in the appendix.
Since the Plum Book is only updated every four years, these mistakes could remain uncorrected until 2024. The Plum Book also does not include supporting methodological information or documentation of any changes made from previous editions or explanations for omissions. But this is not the first time it has been filled with errors.
Fortunately, there are several fundamental improvements that would make the Plum Book more useful. First, the information should be updated as close to real-time as possible. Second, errors should be fixed as soon as they are caught. Third, while the Plum Book is available online as a PDF and through a few other options, it should be available in a more downloadable and machine-readable format. Fourth, providing data based on the self-identified demographic information of individuals holding positions listed in the Plum Book would help shed light on how well the government is doing in attracting and retaining a diverse workforce. Proposed legislation called the PLUM Act would accomplish all these objectives.
These improvements would bring increased transparency and accountability to the federal government by helping ensure the American people know who is serving in top decision-making positions. In addition, the PLUM Act would provide timely information on Senate-confirmed positions and whether they are vacant or filled by an acting official, providing transparency and reinforcing accountability under the Vacancies Act. On June 29, 2021, the PLUM Act was reported out of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Congress should pass the PLUM Act to modernize the Plum Book and prevent major mistakes from occurring in future editions of a critically important government document.
Representative Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) is the chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a bipartisan panel that has produced nearly 100 recommendations focused on improving the way Congress works. During this episode of Transition Lab, Kilmer joined host David Marchick to discuss the panel’s recommendations for increasing civility, bipartisanship and trust among members of Congress, helping new members transition from campaigning to governing and better preparing the institution for emergencies such as the ongoing pandemic.
Read the highlights:
Representative Kilmer described the goals of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
Kilmer: “According to polling, Congress is less popular than colonoscopies and the rock band Nickelback. There is a sense that Congress is punching below its weight. So every two or three decades, Congress creates some sort of committee to look at how to fix [the legislative branch]. We’re the latest incarnation of that. …We were tasked with looking at things like House rules and procedures, technology and innovation, and the recruitment, retention and diversity of staff, and constituent communications. We also decided to look at things that weren’t directly in our mandate, including some of the dysfunction around the budget and appropriations process, [and] things like civility and continuity of government. Our committee members decided early on that we would have a North Star mission, and that mission is to make Congress work better for the American people.”
Kilmer discussed how the committee has embraced bipartisanship.
Kilmer: “Tom Graves, who serves as our vice chair, and I made a conscious decision to have a truly bipartisan committee. …We said, “Let’s have one nonpartisan staff, one budget, one office, no red jerseys or blue jerseys.” …We hired our staff together—some of them were people with Democratic backgrounds, some with Republican backgrounds. …We would [also] meet regularly in private as a full committee. That meant we were allowed to have some honest conversations—and sometimes some really tough debates …We also experimented with mixed seating arrangements during our hearings. Rather than having Democrats sit on one side and Republicans sit on the other, we had Democrats and Republicans sit side by side. …None of that may sound like rocket science to you or to your listeners, but it’s really important in terms of how Congress functions.”
Kilmer discussed the committee’s work on emergency preparedness.
Kilmer: “We think it’s pretty important for Congress to adopt procedures in advance of emergencies, rather than in response to emergencies. …We recommended that the House update procedures to allow members to electronically add or remove their names as bill co-sponsors in 2020, and heading into 2021. …We also recommended that [congressional] committees establish telework policies, that member offices have continuity and telework plans in place, and that members of Congress get cybersecurity, telework and emergency preparedness training. …Congress does not have much in the way of emergency preparedness training. …The executive branch is way more prepared for crisis operations than Congress.”
Kilmer described the committee’s efforts to create better transitions for new members of Congress.
Kilmer: “A new member of Congress is really drinking out of the fire hose because they have to learn the job and get oriented to the job, [and] they have to hire both a Washington D.C. office and a district staff. …Our committee made some recommendations focused on changing that a bit so that orientation wasn’t just an Election Day through Jan. 3 exercise, but more [of a] real-time orientation. …We [also] made a recommendation that … [new congressional representatives] have a paid transition staffer.”
Kilmer described how Congress has navigated the need to telework during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kilmer: “The capacity for committees to work remotely has generally been agreed to by both parties. The discussion around voting on the House floor has been unfortunately more partisan. There is now, in the House rules, the ability to vote by proxy. And you’ve seen a good number of members—either because of a medical condition, a concern about the rising number of cases, or because they have someone at home who might be high risk—vote by proxy. Unfortunately that has not been universally embraced within Congress.”
Kilmer explained what he’s learned about Congress during his time in office.
Kilmer: “I’ve learned a lot about why Congress works and why it doesn’t. You see very obvious instances of dysfunction, and I think some of it is related to the ability to constructively engage members of Congress. You know, the Kilmer family has a new puppy. Like many families, we got a pandemic puppy, an Australian shepherd. [She] is adorable, but I’ve discovered that if you don’t constructively engage Penny, she chooses the furniture. And that kind of happens in Congress too. When people don’t feel invested and engaged, they go to the furniture. They engage in things that contribute to incivility and contribute to dysfunction.”
Kilmer discussed the importance of fostering bipartisanship in the next Congress.
Kilmer: “I represent a district that needs government to work well, and that means we need to get some pucks into the net to help people, whether we’re talking about rebuilding our economy, or expanding access to healthcare or crushing this virus. My constituents actually need government to work. And that means legislation has to pass the House, pass the Senate and get signed by the president. …[So] we’re going to have to find common ground.”
By Amanda Patarino and Troy Cribb
How do Americans find information about the people serving in the top decision-making positions in the federal government?
The answer is not simple. In many cases, the best option is to refer to the “Plum Book,” a government document produced every four years that is outdated by the time it is published.
The Plum Book is the most comprehensive source about officials serving in the federal government. It contains information on more than 4,000 political appointees – 1,200 of whom are subject to Senate confirmation – along with thousands of other jobs filled by senior career officials in the federal civil service.
Unfortunately, the Plum Book has been produced largely the same way since 1952, and should be modernized to provide greater transparency and accountability. Congress is currently considering legislation that would do just that, and the Partnership for Public Service supports this effort to bring the Plum Book into the 21st century.
The history of the Plum Book
The Plum Book has remained largely unchanged since President Eisenhower requested a list of the “plum” positions he could fill in his new administration. Today, the Office of Personnel Management requests information from agencies and compiles that data into one long list with a “plum” purple cover. The list is published by Congress in late November or early December of every presidential election year and provides a snapshot of the political positions and appointees who filled them that previous summer.
This means the data is only available every four years, and, as the Partnership has written, the Plum Book itself is often filled with errors. For example, the Federal Housing Finance Board was listed in the 2016 Plum Book even though it was dissolved in 2008. The 2016 Plum Book also misclassified some positions that were changed to PA (presidential appointment) from PAS (presidential appointment with Senate confirmation) by the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011.
There are three improvements to the Plum Book that would make it more useful. First, the information should be updated more frequently than every four years to provide more timely data. Second, errors should be fixed as soon as they are caught. Third, while the Plum Book is available online as a PDF and a few other file types, it should be available in a more downloadable and machine readable format.
These improvements would bring increased transparency and accountability to the federal government by letting the American people know who is serving in the top decision-making positions. An online, up-to-date Plum Book would be an effective planning tool for the Office of Presidential Personnel or the transition team planning for a new presidency. It also would provide key information to individuals wanting to join an administration.
In June, the Partnership applauded the introduction of the Periodically Listing Updates to Management Act of 2020 (The PLUM Act) by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. As introduced, both bills would require an online database of appointees and require monthly updates, and just yesterday the bill moved through committee in the House. As the Senate bill moved through committee earlier in the summer, though, the reporting requirement was scaled back to an every-two-year update.
As the legislation moves forward in the House and Senate, the Partnership urges lawmakers to put the government on the path toward a real-time comprehensive database. This would include updating the information at least quarterly for all types of positions in the traditional Plum Book. The legislation also should create a process that will minimize errors and allow agencies to leverage systems they already use to track political appointments in order to minimize duplicative reporting.
In addition, the legislation should include guidance about reporting vacancies subject to Senate-confirmation. The Federal Vacancies Reform Act requires agencies to report information about these vacancies to the Government Accountability Office. In recent years, the reporting has been spotty and left the public in the dark as to who is assuming the duties of vacant positions subject to Senate confirmation.
Passage of the PLUM Act would bring the Plum Book and the tracking of political appointments into the modern world. Congress should seize on this opportunity to make appointee data more accurate and accessible.
Amanda Patarino is a consultant on the Center for Presidential Transition, focused on political appointments. Troy Cribb is the Director of Policy at the Partnership for Public Service.
By Paul Hitlin
As our world becomes increasingly digital with new life-changing innovations on the way, federal agencies will need digital, technological and innovation expertise to provide Americans with necessary services. As the country experiences the widespread outbreak of COVID-19, virtual access to government services is proving more essential than ever.
The Partnership for Public Service and the Tech Talent Project released a new report today, “Tech Talent for 21st Century Government,” that focuses on how federal agencies can deliver strong policies and services to advance the country’s ability to innovate. The report highlights a subset of key presidentially appointed and senior-level positions critical for driving innovation in government and a need for leaders who understand the link between technology and organizational effectiveness. Any president planning his policy and management agenda must consider the potential to enhance government capabilities with new technologies.
Built on recommendations from dozens of current and former federal leaders across the political spectrum, the report identifies a subset of critical leadership positions across government and the responsibilities that come with them. The report:
- Pinpoints a wide range of key presidentially appointed and other senior-level positions critical to the government’s ability to deliver strong policies and services, and to advancing our country’s ability to innovate.
- Outlines the technology-related competencies and skills needed by leaders and their teams.
- Surveys the technological landscape at five Cabinet-level departments, outlining their challenges, opportunities and key positions for driving tech innovation.
The White House and agency leaders must build technology-literate leadership teams that set policies for government modernization and provide support government-wide. Ultimately, modern technical expertise is as vital for leaders to have as economic, legal and financial expertise. if we are to create a well-functioning government that works for the people of the United States.
Download the full report.
By the IBM Center for Government and the Shared Services Leadership Coalition
One of the first major policy requirements for any new president is to submit a budget proposal to Congress. For recently elected administrations, this budget is usually presented in February—less than a month into a first term—followed by a more detailed request later in the spring. Presidential transition teams often begin preparing their budget proposals before inauguration.
Rising deficits and debt constrain spending and make the
budget process increasingly more difficult. As a result, the government needs
to find creative approaches to pay for current and future operations,
especially with the added pressure created by the recent economic stimulus plan.
One option for federal leaders and agencies is to encourage the private sector
to invest in modernizing government operations.
To address these challenges, the IBM Center for the Business of Government
and the Shared Services Leadership Coalition recently released a report, Mobilizing Capital
Investment to Modernize Government, which offers strategies federal
agencies can use to encourage private investment. The report offers specific recommendations
for revising budget and acquisition procedures while abiding by safeguards in
appropriations, budget scoring and procurement processes rooted in long-standing
This report also includes expert insights and precedents for applying
commercial best practices across government. Among the recommendations:
- The federal government should evaluate precedents
regarding how private capital has been used for public purposes and determine
how those examples can be applied to other situations.
- The federal government’s budget and procurement
processes should be made friendlier to outside investments to help modernize
government and encourage more public-private partnerships.
The report features 10 recommendations for the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration and Congress, and their stakeholders and partners. Leaders who find creative ways to improve the budget process will be better equipped to address important national needs now and moving forward.
Confronted with considerable change in the coming decade,
the federal government must evolve to support technology, data and the
evolution of workplace demands. Presidents need forward-thinking and proactive
management agendas in order to adapt to these changes and build a successful
administration to deliver on campaign promises. In fact, most transition teams
view management issues as so critical, they devote significant resources to planning
their administrative strategy in addition to their policy preparation.
The Partnership for Public Service
and Ernst &
Young LLP recently released a report on the future of government
that can inform both administrations seeking a second term and challengers
seeking the presidency. Through interviews with agency leaders and
subject-matter specialists, “A
Roadmap to the Future: Toward a More Connected Federal Government” offers
recommendations on how agencies can make the most of technology, data and the
workforce to better accomplish their missions.
Success in these areas depends on agencies improving
internal collaboration, working together, engaging the public and establishing
connections with stakeholders from outside government.
Doing so allows agencies to:
- Lead with groundbreaking new insights from data
while protecting privacy.
- Creatively employ data to revolutionize service
- Proactively alert people about benefits they may
be eligible for.
- Enable the public to fulfill many or even most
of its needs via a single federal website.
As the report notes, “Widespread success would mean a more
effective and efficient federal government that pushes the limits of the
possible and exceeds, rather than simply meets, the expectations of the people
Download the full
The 2020 presidential campaign is well underway as the first
primaries and caucuses rapidly approach. Soon, presidential hopefuls will need
to assemble a team to plan a transition — either to a new administration or a
One of the most important tasks for any administration is filling more than 4,000 political appointments. Yet, as Amanda Patarino recently wrote in the Kennedy School Review, progress is hampered for transitions teams because official listings and data about these positions is often problematic and unreliable.
One of the primary sources of information about political
appointments is the Plum
Book, published by Congress and the Government Publishing Office after
each presidential election. Unfortunately, as Patarino points out, data in the Plum
Book is often “outdated, unreliable and cumbersome.” The information is hard to
understand even for Washington insiders, adding to the challenge for government
to attract the best talent from across the country. Both federal agencies and transition
teams would benefit from official data that is in user-friendly formats and updated
The Center for Presidential Transition and the Washington
Post provide an appointment
tracker that can help transition teams understand
the appointment process. The tracker, which is updated weekly, chronicles the nominations
of more than 740 key Senate-confirmed positions.
Even small improvements to data on government
positions and the Plum Book will benefit both transition teams and federal
agencies. And the public benefits from improved transparency and real-time