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 This means that information about some positions is outdated before it is even made available to the public.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.

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.

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.

Recommendations

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.

Current legislation

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 Jeffrey Neal

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.

Being offered a political appointment can be exciting. You have an opportunity to serve the public and the president, do meaningful work and make a difference. But after the excitement fades, it is time to get into the details, including one of the most important considerations for many people—the pay.

Salary is an important consideration for the majority of appointees, particularly those in Schedule C or noncareer Senior Executive Service positions. Does the agency have flexibility in setting your pay? Can you negotiate? How about pay raises or performance bonuses?

Agency flexibility in setting pay depends on the job. For many positions the answers are yes, they have options. Keep in mind that pay for political appointees is a political issue. That means an administration may choose not to use all the flexibility the law allows and that may limit your pay.

The government does not pay senior officials the kind of money typically found in the private sector. In the government, you may run a multi-billion-dollar program with thousands of employees and make less (sometimes much less) than $200,000 per year. You should also not be surprised if you receive a political appointment and have subordinates who make more than you. Career employee pay is much more controlled by statute and regulations, and is not connected to the pay of political appointees.

Political positions are listed in the Plum Book, which is published in late November or early December of a presidential election year. Here are the six most common types of political jobs and how their pay is set:

Executive Schedule Positions. These are the big jobs, such as Cabinet secretaries and other agency heads, deputy secretaries, undersecretaries and some assistant secretaries. The positions are listed in the Plum Book as Pay Plan EX. Pay for these positions falls into one of five pay grades from I to V, with EX-I being the highest. There is no locality pay and there are no bonuses. The pay tables show a higher level of pay than what is payable for many jobs due to a political appointee pay freeze (see the pay table for details). There are instances when an Executive Schedule appointee in levels I — IV can get higher pay, but they are rare and require approval by the Office of Personnel Management and the White House.

Noncareer SES Positions. These are senior positions that usually run major programs. The number is capped at 10% of the number of SES positions government-wide. Pay is listed in the Plum Book as Pay Plan ES. Pay varies widely, starting at $131,239 and topping out at $197,300. Agencies have broad discretion on setting pay with White House approval typically required. There are some cases where pay can be set higher, such as in financial regulatory agencies or when an agency can get OPM and White House approval for critical position pay, but that is rare. Pay for these positions is often negotiable within the pay range. The time to negotiate is before you are appointed. Once you are appointed, big changes in pay are much harder to receive. The strongest case for your pay is one based on current pay. If you are in a job that pays $100,000 per year, it is unlikely an agency will pay you $197,300. Noncareer SES do not receive locality pay or bonuses.

Senior Level Positions. These positions are not SES positions, but are paid using the same pay scale. Pay is often negotiable within the pay range. The pay plan is listed in the Plum Book as SL.

Administratively Determined Pay Positions. These positions, designated in the Plum Book as Pay Plan AD, are in agencies with independent authority to determine the rates for any group or category of employees. Examples of AD political appointments are U.S. attorneys. Agencies must follow their unique statutory authority to set or adjust pay under an AD pay system.  Although there are AD positions where pay is negotiable, many are not.

Schedule C Positions. These comprise the largest number of political positions (about 1,400). “Schedule C” is a technical term that refers to the statutory authority for the appointment. Most Schedule C positions are paid using the same General Schedule or equivalent pay levels (including locality pay) that agencies use for their career workforce. Schedule C employees can be promoted. Step increases, bonuses and “quality step increases” (QSIs) are authorized by statute. Bonuses and QSIs are optional and have been restricted by administrations in prior years. You can negotiate pay and grade within reason, based upon your qualifications and salary history.

Boards and commissions. Many political appointments are as members of boards and commissions. Pay for those positions depends on many factors, including whether the position is full-time or part-time. Check the Plum Book for more details on specifics.

The Plum Book will contain more information on other, less common pay plans and types of positions. Keep in mind that the Plum Book is published every four years and many positions are created at the discretion of the administration. The 2020 Plum Book will include positions that existed in the Trump administration. The next administration (whether the president is reelected or not) may choose to change many of the positions that are not mandated by statute.

Jeffrey Neal is the author of the blog ChiefHRO.com and previously served as chief human capital officer for the Department of Homeland Security.

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 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 second term.

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 consistently.

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 information.