This week marks the beginning of Pride month, a time in which we reflect on the history and achievements of the LGBTQ+ community and reaffirm our unwavering support for equality and inclusivity. The Partnership for Public Service and Center for Presidential Transition honor the service of countless LGBTQ+ public servants who have served across administrations.

The service of LGBTQ+ individuals in the federal government has not always been celebrated. Beginning in the late 1940s, in the midst of the Cold War, there was a “Lavendar Scare” that focused on purging the federal civil service, along with government contractors, of gays and lesbians. President Dwight Eisenhower formalized the policy in April of 1953 with Executive Order 10450 which authorized the investigation and firing of civil servants for “sexual perversion.” Due to this policy, tens of thousands of civil servants were investigated and thousands lost their careers.

The policy of targeting gay and lesbian civil servants continued for decades. It was not until 1975 that the Civil Service Commission ended the ban on gays and lesbians in the federal civil service and 1977 that the Department of State ended its ban within the Foreign Service. It took another two decades until discrimination based on sexual orientation was banned in granting access to classified information, when President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12968 in 1995.

Even as formal constraints on the service of LGBTQ+ individuals were removed over time, LGBTQ+ individuals continued to face opposition because of their identities. Roberta Achtenberg, the first openly LGBTQ+ Senate-confirmed appointee who won approval in 1993, and James Hormel, the first openly LGBTQ+ ambassador who took office through a recess appointment in 1999, faced questions about their ability to serve based on their identities alone.

Despite obstacles, openly LGBTQ+ individuals have served in appointed leadership roles in each of the last five administrations. Clinton led the way by making the first nominations of openly LGBT individuals, appointing about 140 to serve in his administration. President Barack Obama nearly doubled that number, appointing over 250 openly LGBTQ+ officials during his administration.

Milestones of LGBTQ+ Service and Leadership in the Federal Government

Biden has appointed more openly LGBTQ+ officials than any of his predecessors. As of October of 2023, Biden had appointed over 340 openly LGBTQ+ officials across the executive branch. Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, which works to advance LGBTQ+ elected and appointed government officials, described the Biden administration as “the most LGBTQ-inclusive in history…”

Our government is best when it is representative of its people and inclusive to all. Despite discrimination and bigotry, LGBTQ+ individuals have always strived to serve their government and country. Thanks to social and legal progress over time, the government benefits more than ever from the leadership of LGBTQ+ officials.

Given the long hours and tough responsibilities at Cabinet agencies, presidents can expect departures among Senate-confirmed leadership. While turnover is expected, high departure rates can pose significant challenges for day-to-day agency operations and long-term planning. 

Turnover in the modern context is more troublesome than ever before. Our research shows that Senate confirmation times have grown for each subsequent administration while nomination success rates have progressively declined. This means that, when agency leaders depart, it will take significantly longer to replace them than it did for previous presidents. As a result, many positions remain vacant for extended periods of time. 

Using our political appointee tracker and other data sources, we have examined the rates of Senate-confirmed appointee turnover during the four most recent administrations. As we look to personnel changes following the November election—whether it be a second term for the incumbent or a new administration—a retrospective on turnover helps put recent personnel challenges in context.  

We analyzed turnover among presidential nominees in major departments and agencies,1 excluding U.S. marshals and attorneys. To make an equivalent comparison with the ongoing Biden administration, we looked at each president’s first term up until April 1 of their fourth year in office.

Total Departures10573 94 34 
Tracked Positions353 359 385 392 
Total Turnover Rate30% 20% 24% 9% 
Note: Data covers Senate-confirmed positions in executive CFO Act agencies, excluding ambassadors, U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals. The time period covered is from the beginning of the administration through April 1 of the fourth year.  

The Bush administration experienced the highest total turnover at 30% during this period of time. Trump and Obama had lower and more comparable turnover rates at 24% and 20%, respectively. Biden experienced significantly less turnover than his predecessors at 9%. 

Note: Data includes Senate-confirmed positions excluding ambassadors, U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals. The time period from the beginning of the administration through April 1 of the fourth year.

Looking closer at these departments by president, the total turnover rates during the Bush and Obama administrations (59% and 30% respectively) were greatly impacted by Treasury Department departures. As for the Department for Veterans Affairs, Bush and Trump received the highest rates of turnover (50% and 33% respectively). The Department of Commerce—despite undergoing some of the highest rates of turnover on average—did not experience any turnover during the Biden administration through this past April. Moreover, there were no departures of Biden appointees during this period at the Environmental Protection Agency, or at the departments of Education and Energy. Similarly, the Trump administration had no turnover of its appointees at the Department of Agriculture despite turnover rates at other departments. 

The departments of Transportation and Homeland Security also highlight differences. Trump experienced roughly five times more turnover than previous administrations at DHS (53%), the second highest rate of any other department. As for Biden, the DOT experienced the second highest rate of total turnover so far during his presidency (17%), exceeding two previous administrations but trailing the Bush administration (38%). For context, DHS had an average turnover rate of 21% while DOT’s rate was 20% during the past four administrations. While Trump had more than double the average turnover at DHS, Biden remains below the DOT average. 

Note: Data covers Senate-confirmed positions in executive CFO Act agencies, excluding ambassadors, U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals. The time period covered is from the beginning of the administration through April 1 of the fourth year. 

For each administration, turnover peaked during year three with relatively low turnover in other years. Compared to recent presidents, Biden has maintained low turnover, rising only to 6% during his third year. Obama was the next lowest in year three turnover, but the rate was nearly double at 13%. The second year of administrations has had low turnover in general, with the highest turnover occurring during the Trump administration (6%). For all four presidents, the first year had turnover rates at or below 1%. 

Recent success during the Biden administration at limiting turnover rates is an important development in light of increasing confirmation delays. Even as turnover appears to have tempered during the current administration, there are greater ramifications for each departure as it becomes more difficult to confirm a replacement. 

The challenger candidate in the 2024 election must consider how to staff an entire administration, but even the incumbent candidate must take proactive steps to avoid trends from previous second term presidents to retain leaders in key positions in order to achieve policy goals. 

1 As defined by the Chief Financial Officers (CFO) Act of 1990 (Public Law 101–576).

This blog post was authored by Husam AlZubaidy, an associate at the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition.

As we celebrate Asian and Pacific Heritage Month, it’s crucial to recognize the significant contributions made by Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans to our federal government. While there has been a notable rise in the representation of Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans in federal government roles in recent years, there remains room for further progress and development.  

Many Cabinet agencies have yet to see Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans in high-level roles. Important leaderships positions, such as president, have never been filled by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. This month, it is important to celebrate the contributions and historic firsts throughout history, knowing there is more progress to be made. 

In recognition of May as Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month, here is a list of prominent Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have served in the federal government. 

Daniel Kahikina Akaka – Senator from Hawaii

Akaka was elected to the House of Representatives in 1976 where he served seven consecutive terms. Akaka became the first U.S. senator of Native Hawaiian ancestry when he was appointed to the Senate in1990. During his long career in public service, he was an advocate for veterans and Native Hawaiian rights. Prior to his time in Congress, Akaka was a high school teacher and vice principal. From 1969 to 1971, he was the chief program planner for the Hawaii Department of Education.

Elaine Chao – Secretary of Labor and Secretary of Transportation

President George W. Bush appointed Chao to be secretary of Labor in 2001, making her the first Asian American woman and first Taiwanese American in U.S. history to be appointed to a Cabinet position. President Donald Trump later appointed Chao to be secretary of Transportation in 2017. Prior to holding those positions, Chao had been a successful businesswoman, the director of the Peace Corps and served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Tammy Duckworth – Senator from Illinois

Tammy Duckworth was elected to the Senate in 2016 following two terms representing Illinois in the House. of Representatives. Duckworth also served in the Army during the Iraq War and is a Purple Heart recipient. Prior to taking office, she was appointed to assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs by President Barack Obama in 2009.

Mervyn Dymally – Representative from California

Dymally served six terms in the House of Representatives, beginning in1981. His father was from Trinidad and his mother from India, making him the first person of mixed African and Indian descent to serve in Congress. Throughout his time in the House, he was an advocate for human rights and economic development worldwide. Following his retirement from public service, he worked as a foreign affairs consultant for Caribbean, African and Asian interests and was a professor at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

Hiram Fong – Senator from Hawaii

In 1959, Fong was the first person of Chinese descent elected to Congress and the first Asian Pacific American elected to the Senate, where he served for nearly two decades. In 1964, he was the first Chinese American candidate for the presidency, and he is the only Republican to serve as the senator from Hawaii.

Kamala Harris – Vice President

Harris became the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history when she was elected vice president in 2020. Harris – whose mother was born in India – also became the first Asian American and African American vice president. Harris was the attorney general of California from 2011 to 2017 and a senator from California beginning in 2017.

Mazie Hirono – Senator from Hawaii

Hirono has been a senator from Hawaii since 2013. She was the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate and the first elected female senator from Hawaii. She was elected to the House in 2006. Hirono was born in Japan and was the only person of Asian ancestry serving in the Senate from 2013 until 2017.

Daniel Inouye – Senator from Hawaii

Inouye became the first Japanese American to serve in the House of Representatives in 1959 and the first Japanese American to serve in the Senate in 1962. He did not lose an election in 58 years. Prior to holding office, Inouye served in the Army during World War II and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart with Cluster.

Pramila Jayapal – Representative from Washington

Representing the state of Washington since 2017, Jayapal is the first Indian American to serve in the House. of Representatives. Her work throughout her career has focused on immigration, income inequality and global public health. She is currently a member of the House Judiciary Committee, the House Education and Workforce Committee and is the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Gary Locke – United States Secretary of Commerce

Locke was appointed as secretary of Commerce from 2009 to 2011 during the Obama administration. Prior to holding this position, he was elected as the governor of Washington State in 1997. He was the first Chinese American governor in U.S. history and was the first Asian American governor in the continental U.S. During his time as governor and secretary of Commerce, he focused on education, employment, trade, health care and human rights. He later served as the 10th ambassador to China from 2011 to 2014.

Chris Lu – Deputy Secretary of Labor

Lu was confirmed as deputy secretary of Labor under President Barack Obama in 2014, making him the second Asian American to hold such a position in a Cabinet department. From 2009 to 2013, Lu was assistant to the president and the White House cabinet secretary. He also co-chaired the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Lu is currently the representative to the U.N. for management and reform.

Spark Matsunaga – Senator from Hawaii

Matsunaga was a Japanese American congressman and senator for Hawaii. Throughout his time in Congress, he advocated for the bill that led to the creation of the U.S. Institute for Peace, legislation that created the position for the United States Poet Laureate and a measure to address the discrimination faced by Japanese Americans during the World War II interment. He was a member of the House Rules Committee. Prior to his career in public service, Matsunaga was a member of the Hawaii National Guard and a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army during WWII.

Norman Mineta – Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Transportation

Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 2000 to be secretary of Commerce, Mineta was the first Asian American and Pacific Islander to be appointed to a Cabinet position. He was later appointed in 2001 by George W. Bush to be secretary of Transportation and went on to serve in this position for the longest amount of time in the department’s history.

Patsy Mink – Representative from Hawaii

Mink began her career in the Hawaii State Senate before later winning her 1964 campaign for the newly created second position for Hawaii in the House of Representatives. This made her the first Asian-American woman to serve in Congress and the first woman of color elected to the House. of Representatives. Throughout her time in Congress, Mink focused on gender and racial equality, affordable childcare and Title IX.

Pat Saiki – Administrator of the Small Business Administration

President George H. W. Bush appointed Pat Saiki to be administrator of the Small Business Administration in 1991. In 1986, Saiki was the first Republican elected to represent Hawaii in the House since it gained statehood.

Eric Shinseki – Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Eric Shinseki was President Barack Obama’s choice for secretary of Veterans Affairs in 2009, making him the first Asian American to serve in that position. Previously, Shinseki had a long career in the military, where he served as the 34th Army chief of staff and was the first Asian American four-star general. He served two tours during the Vietnam War for which he was awarded three Bronze Star Medals for valor and two Purple Hearts.

This blog post was authored by Meredith Boldman, a communications intern at the Partnership for Public Service

The Senate confirmation process for executive branch nominees has become more difficult during the last 40 years.

President Joe Biden’s nominees have taken nearly three times longer to be confirmed during his first three years compared to the nominees in the George H.W. Bush administration.

Confirmation delays continued to grow under the Trump administration and have worsened further under Biden. Delays faced by Biden’s nominees in the first three years were 13% longer than Trump’s nominees.

Beyond confirmation times, presidents during the last 40 years have seen fewer and fewer of their nominees confirmed by the Senate. Through year three, Presidents Donald Trump and Biden each had approximately 150 fewer nominees confirmed compared to President Barack Obama and 250 to 300 fewer nominees confirmed compared to Presidents H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The broken process leaves critical positions vacant for long periods of time, which is a disservice to the public in carrying out the fundamental roles of government, from national security to infrastructure to health and safety.

Using an analysis of our Political Appointee Tracker, we have been able to gain a clearer view of vacancy rates under the Biden and Trump administrations.

From our analysis of the state of vacancies in Cabinet Departments as of March 19th in the fourth year of the last two administrations, we found that:

Vacancies are widespread across Cabinet departments

As of March 19, 2024, 98 of 547 Cabinet department positions (18%) followed on our tracker were vacant in the Biden administration. At the same point in time, 157 of 526 Cabinet department positions (30%) followed on our tracker were vacant during the Trump administration. 

Some Cabinet departments have alarmingly high rates of vacancies

Four Cabinet departments had 30% or more of their positions vacant as of March 19, 2024. At the equivalent date during Trump’s fourth year, nine Cabinet departments had 30% or more of their positions vacant. For both administrations, the Department of Homeland Security had the highest vacancy rate at 35% in the Biden administration and 65% in the Trump administration. The departments of Housing and Urban Development and Justice also have consistently had high rates of vacancies, totaling more than 30% across the last two administrations.

Note: Excludes U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals

Many Cabinet positions have yet to be filled more than three years into last two administrations

As of March 19, 2024, 50 Cabinet positions (9%) had never been filled with a Senate confirmed appointee since the beginning of the Biden administration. At the same point in time, 66 Cabinet positions (13%) had never been filled with a Senate confirmed appointee since the beginning of the Trump administration. The Department of Justice has been particularly affected by this problem, with over 25% of Senate confirmed positions never having someone confirmed by the Senate through March 19 of the fourth year of the last two administrations.

Note: Excludes U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals

Nineteen Cabinet positions were not filled by either the Trump or Biden administration by March 19 of their fourth year

Across the Trump and Biden administrations, there are 19 positions in common that remained vacant during the first three years of each administration. Four of these positions are the chief financial officers at the departments of Agriculture, Homeland Security, State and Treasury. The list also includes high-level positions like the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Positions Not Filled by the Fourth Year of Each of the Last Two Administrations

Chief financial officerDepartment of Agriculture
Assistant secretary for civil rightsDepartment of Agriculture
Assistant secretary for communications and outreachDepartment of Education
Assistant secretary for planning and evaluationDepartment of Health and Human Services
Chief financial officerDepartment of Homeland Security
Director, Immigration and Customs EnforcementDepartment of Homeland Security
Assistant attorney general for the tax divisionDepartment of Justice
Deputy administrator, Drug Enforcement AdministrationDepartment of Justice
Commissioner, U.S. Parole Commission (2)Department of Justice
Special counsel for immigration-related unfair employment practicesDepartment of Justice
Chairman, Foreign Claims Settlement CommissionDepartment of Justice
Chief financial officerDepartment of State
Coordinator for threat reduction programsDepartment of State
Ambassador, BahamasDepartment of State
Ambassador, CubaDepartment of State
Director, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and EnforcementDepartment of the Interior
Special trustee for American IndiansDepartment of the Interior
Chief financial officerDepartment of the Treasury

These findings highlight the challenges in filling certain key roles in government. Reform of the confirmation process is urgently needed, starting with a reduction in the number of appointments subject to Senate approval.

Chris Piper is a manager at the Center for Presidential Transition.

Keep satellites in orbit! Keep the lead out of the drinking water! Keep your cool, even though you have no idea, as a political appointee, whether you will have a job next year. This is the dilemma appointees face in an election year.

A political appointee’s job is always busy and never easy, especially in the lead up to a presidential election. An election may mean continued employment (if the incumbent wins) or a sudden date with the door (if the challenger prevails). Either way, uncertainty can create stress and campaign battles only serve to increase such anxiety.

Below is some advice, sourced from former officials, for political appointees about maintaining sanity and staff morale during the months ahead.

1. Deal fairly and honestly with the agency transition requirements.

Political appointees must model professionalism and good faith as they support efforts by career officials to prepare for a possible transition as required by law. Agencies must meet a series of transition requirements including preparing briefings and written materials. This will help ensure a smooth transition of power if there is a change of administration.

2. Collaborate with top leadership to plan for a potential second term.

At the same time, an incumbent administration should be preparing for a second term if victorious. Political appointees should fulfill any requests to support transition planning while continuing to do their jobs.

3. Prepare succession plans.

The start of a new presidential term triggers high turnover in political roles, even if an incumbent wins. Political leaders should direct agencies to prepare lines of succession and identify potential acting officials to be ready for any departures.

4. Identify high-performers and allow opportunities for advancement.

If the incumbent wins, election year turnover can create openings for top performers to advance within the political ranks. Top appointees should identify and offer opportunities for strong performers to stay during and after the transition period.

5. Communicate clearly with colleagues.

Given the external turmoil and election uncertainty, clear internal communication about continued expectations is essential for maintaining trust among employees.

6. Share success stories internally and externally.

Members of the civil service faces many challenges. Sharing stories of success can boost staff morale despite outside pressures.

7. Create or join a supportive community.

Participation in communities with those who have the same professional or personal identities can be an opportunity to share struggles and successes, and provide support across silos or lines of reporting. Affinity groups or professional convenings, such as those facilitated by the Partnership for Public Service, are great examples of these.

8. Take this opportunity to review and publicize leave and self-care benefits.

Appointees should create a culture that encourages their entire organization to make use of their vacation, sick leave and other benefits.

9. Show your people some love.

Small gestures can mean a lot. Political appointees should share invitations to White House gatherings when available such as the upcoming White House Easter Egg Roll or other administration events. This is also a great time to plan retreats for staff to bond, share strategies and refocus on their mission.

10. Show yourself some love.

Take a break from the news. Take a walk. Take a deep breath. The next few months may be difficult and stressful, so do what you need to get through it and support those around you.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month both in the U.S. and worldwide, it’s a good time to examine the contributions women have made in the federal government. The Biden administration has seen a number of historic firsts for women: In 2021, Kamala Harris became the country’s first woman vice president, Janet Yellen became the first woman secretary of the Treasury and Avril Haines became the first woman director of National Intelligence.

Despite these wins, there’s still a long way to go. There are still important leadership positions that have never been held by a woman. For example, not only has no woman ever been president or chief justice of the Supreme Court, but two Cabinet agencies have never had a woman secretary: the departments of the Defense and Veterans Affairs.

The following are 10 important positions in the federal government that have never been filled by a woman.

1. President – None of the 45 individuals who served as president have been women. Hillary Clinton was the first woman to be nominated by a major political party in 2016.

2. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – Twenty-one men and no women have filled the most senior position in the U.S. armed forces since its creation in 1949.

3. Chief Justice of Supreme Court – Only six justices in the more than 230-year history of the Supreme Court have been women, and none have been appointed chief justice.

4. Chief of Staff to the President – Since President Harry Truman appointed the first chief of staff in 1946—called the assistant to the president at the time—none of the 31 people to hold this position have been women.

5. Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation – The first leader of the FBI was appointed in 1908, and none of the 20 directors (including those in an acting capacity) have been women.

6. Director of the National Security Agency – Women have never held the highest-ranking position in the NSA since the intelligence agency was founded in 1952.

7. Secretary of Defense – The Department of Defense has never been led by a woman since its inception in 1947.

8. Secretary of Veterans Affairs – The Department of Veterans Affairs was formed in 1989, and all 11 of the Senate-confirmed officials who led the agency have been men.

9. Senate Majority Leader – No Senate majority leader has been female since that role was created in the 1920s.In fact, no Senate minority leader has been a woman during that period either.

10. NASA Administrator – None of the 14 people who have been confirmed to lead the agency since its founding in 1958.

This list is not exhaustive. Other important positions, such as the ambassadorships to China, Israel, and Russia have not been held by a woman. Other positions have only had a woman official recently.

As the country honors women’s history, those who have served as leaders of our democracy deserve recognition and appreciation. At the same time, their absence from key positions in government, and thus from critical conversations in domestic and foreign policy, is worth highlighting. As President Joe Biden proclaimed, “Throughout history, the vision and achievements of powerful women have strengthened our Nation and opened the doors of opportunity wider for all of us.”

Extensive research indicates diverse and inclusive teams produce better outcomes, and that well-qualified women are ready to lead. While we have made progress in the last 100 years, more work needs to be done to ensure the top levels of our government resemble the country they serves.

Every presidential administration has the opportunity to appoint approximately 4,000 individuals to carry out the elected president’s agenda, and talented people are always needed to serve in these roles. 

So whether you are interested in finding a place in the current administration or the one that begins in 2025, it’s best to consider if an appointment is right for you and how you can prepare to navigate the  process. 

The Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition helps aspiring appointees by providing a wealth of information through our nonpartisan Ready to Serve® centralized online resource.  

Aside from the most senior political appointees that you hear about such as secretaries and deputy secretaries of Cabinet departments, there are many different roles that support the work of the president and their administration. There are four types of appointments: presidential appointments with Senate confirmation; presidential appointments without Senate confirmation; non-career Senior Executive Service; and Schedule C.  

How do I become a political appointee? 

For more information about political appointments and other aspects of presidential transition, check out the Center for Presidential Transition’s website. 

This piece was originally published on the Partnership for Public Service’s blog, We the Partnership, on September 9, 2021.

By Carter Hirschhorn and Dan Hyman

Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a tragedy that changed our country and the world. In 2004, a bipartisan commission investigating the attacks issued the “9/11 Commission Report,” which made 41 recommendations to prevent future terrorist attacks and strengthen our national security. One of the report’s most notable findings was that a delayed presidential transition in 2000 “hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees.”

Importantly, this finding revealed our country’s flawed political appointment process and showed how slow Senate confirmations can imperil our national security. The commission’s report recommended several improvements to this process to ensure both our country’s safety – particularly during and in the immediate aftermath of a presidential transition – and continuity within government.

Appointment delays in 2001

The commission found that George W. Bush lacked key deputy Cabinet and subcabinet officials until the spring and summer of 2001, noting that “the new administration—like others before it—did not have its team on the job until at least six months after it took office,” or less than two months before 9/11. On the day of the attacks, only 57% of the top 123 Senate-confirmed positions were filled at the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the State Department combined, excluding ambassadors, U.S. marshals and attorneys. 

New legislation since 2001

In the aftermath of 9/11, new laws addressed several recommendations highlighted in the “9/11 Commission Report.” The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 expedited security clearances for key national security positions, recommended that administrations submit nominations for national security positions by Inauguration Day and encouraged the full Senate to vote on these positions within 30 days of nomination.

The Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010 provided additional pre-election services to presidential candidates and the incumbent administration, enabling them to better prepare for a transfer of power or a second term, and to more quickly nominate key officials. The Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011 also reduced the overall number of Senate-confirmed positions by 163 in an attempt to free up more time for the Senate to confirm higher-level, policy-making roles.

Key areas for improvement in 2021

Despite these advances, the Senate confirmation process takes longer than ever; and vacancies in key Senate-confirmed positions continue to increase.  For example, the Partnership’s latest report, Unconfirmed: Why reducing the number of Senate-confirmed positions can make government more effective, revealed that the number of positions requiring Senate confirmation has grown more than 50% from 1960. Partly for this reason, several positions critical to our safety and national security remain unfilled more than seven months after President Biden’s inauguration. These positions include the assistant secretary for homeland defense and global security at the Defense Department, the assistant secretary for intelligence and research at the State Department, and the assistant attorney general for the national security division at the Justice Department.[1]

The fateful morning of Sept. 11 and the subsequent 9/11 Commission Report revealed our need for a more efficient Senate confirmation process. Accelerating this process and reducing the number of Senate-confirmed positions would strengthen our government’s ability to protect the nation and serve the public. To build a better government and a stronger democracy, we must efficiently fill vital leadership roles throughout the federal workforce. That can only happen if we continue to improve the way presidential appointments are made.

[1] As of Wednesday, September 8 the Senate had confirmed Biden nominees for 27% of the top 139 positions at the Pentagon, Justice and State departments combined – excluding ambassadors, U.S. marshals and attorneys.

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 Heather Yang Hwalek

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.

Part-time federal advisory boards, commissions and committees are important parts of the federal government that generally receive little attention. Joining one of these groups is a great way for experienced individuals to engage in public service even if they do not hold a full-time government position.

The Leadership Council on Women in National Security (LCWINS) recently hosted a webinar on the subject. Below are five important questions and answers that explain how interested people can seek out opportunities to serve.

  1. What are federal advisory boards and commissions?

Federal advisory boards and commissions are groups of subject matter experts convened by the executive branch to provide advice and recommendations to the president, agency heads, and other staff. There are roughly 1,000 boards or commissions across the government, and service is part-time and non-compensated. The Federal Advisory Committee Act is the controlling statute for the formation and administration of agency-level boards and commissions.

  1. How do I find what opportunities exist to serve?

There is no comprehensive list of all of these opportunities. LCWINS compiled a list of national security-related boards and commissions along with a FAQ document. The list was compiled primarily from the website and the White House’s Join Us page. Those interested in serving on a board or commission can start with a list of groups governed by the Federal Advisory Committee Act that is overseen by the General Services Administration.

  1. How do I apply?

Different boards and commissions have different processes. Some are presidentially appointed and some are appointed at the agency level. Some take direct applications, some work through nominations and some are staffed through appointments that are less transparent. To express interest and gain support for any opportunities that interest you, it is important to reach out to relevant stakeholders and members of that board or commission’s “ecosystem.”

  1. What is it like to serve on one of these boards, commissions or committees?

During the LCWINS webinar, panelists highlighted that serving on a board or commission is an opportunity to provide advice to government decision makers and help inform policy from an outside perspective. Service is also an opportunity to connect with other subject matter experts in the field. Many boards and commissions have subcommittees whose membership is broader than the main body. Service on such a subcommittee is another way to get involved.

Serving on a federal advisory board or commission can be hard work and may require a security clearance (see form SF-86), vetting from the White House or a certification that a member has no conflicts of interest.

  1. Is it worth it?

Federal advisory boards and committees offer an opportunity for public service as an alternative to a full-time career or political appointments. The advice and recommendations of external subject matter experts strengthen policymaking. Those who have served in these positions endorse them resoundingly and say they are a great way to use one’s knowledge and experience to serve their country.

Heather Yang Hwalek coordinates the LCWINS webinar program and has a decade of national security experience with the federal government. LCWINS is an organization of women and allies from across the political spectrum working to advance gender inclusion at the highest levels of the U.S. national security and foreign policy workforce.