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:

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.

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).”