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.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
Following the last four presidential elections, the Partnership for Public Service and our Center for Presidential Transition have collected lessons learned on transition activities, which have helped inform four rounds of bipartisan laws passed to bring the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 in line with modern transition practices.
The transition law requires the General Services Administration to provide office space and other core support to presidents-elect and vice-presidents elect, as well as pre-election preparation space and support to major candidates. It also provides a framework for GSA, the White House and federal agencies to coordinate transition planning.
The updates to the law have had a profound impact in shifting the narrative around transition planning. Presidential candidates used to shy away from transition planning, worried that the public would see them as prematurely “measuring the drapes” of the Oval Office. Congress has helped change that perception and, through its oversight and legislation, has emphasized the importance of early planning by the transition teams of candidates as well as by agencies across the government. This tradition now continues with a new bill, the Agency Preparation for Transitions Act, sponsored by Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).
- Establishing an election year kick-off at least nine months before an election of both the White House-led transition council and the council of agency career leaders responsible for transition planning. (These councils were officially created by legislation signed into law in 2016.)
- Requiring agencies to prepare transition briefing materials by October 15 of the presidential election year (moving up the deadline from November 1).
- Creating a forum for GSA’s federal transition coordinator to give guidance to small agencies on government-wide transition planning activities.
- Ensuring that transition planning will envision how equitable transition services will flow to candidates if there is a delay in determining the winner (consistent with the bipartisan Presidential Transition Improvement Act, signed into law in 2022).
While candidates in recent elections have begun transition planning well before the election, the roughly 75 days between Election Day and Inauguration Day is a crucial period for an incoming president, during which agencies begin to brief the transition team on major policy issues and decisions that will confront the incoming administration on Day One. The bipartisan work of Congress over the years in fine-tuning the Presidential Transition Act has made the run-up to
Inauguration Day much less complicated and has enabled presidents-elect to take maximum advantage of the short post-election transition period.
Even if a sitting president wins re-election, the transition planning is not all for naught. The Center’s research has shown a high turnover rate of appointees as presidents move from a first to a second term. As first-term presidents plan for a second term, the briefing materials prepared by agencies are valuable alike to incoming appointees of a new president and for a second-term president. Under either scenario, the Presidential Transition Act allows the winner of the election an opportunity to heed Ben Franklin’s advice and prepare for success.
Given the incredible complexity of managing the federal government, new presidents have found outside think tanks and other organizations to be helpful partners as sources of expertise, personnel and broad perspectives.
The short-lived and hectic sprint of a campaign leaves little time for presidential candidates to master the details of the job. However, nongovernmental organizations hold reserves of institutional knowledge and can fill in gaps to help a new administration prepare for office.
Since 2008, the Center for Presidential Transition has been one of these groups. As a nonpartisan entity pursuing better government and stronger democracy, we provide resources to all presidential candidates preparing for a first or second term. We do not advise candidates on the substance of policies, only on best practices to enact them and create an effective, well-run administration.
Since standing up in 2008, the Center has supported
the leading presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle with resources such as the Presidential Transition Guide, Agency Transition Guide, and Ready to Govern content to prepare for their potential administrations. Other groups, including the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and the White House Transition Project, also provide nonpartisan analysis and resources. Nonpartisan organizations resist the partisanship that frames so much conversation about government and offer clear-eyed best practices for the most effective operation of the executive branch.
Other groups help with the “what” of governing in addition to the “how.” Many of these organizations have a perspective, and any administration will gravitate to ones that align with their political goals. Previous presidents recruited personnel and policy from these groups to great effect.
For example, the Heritage Foundation produced its first “Mandate for Leadership” in 1981 and the Reagan administration implemented nearly two-thirds of its 2,000 policy recommendations, with Reagan crediting Heritage as a “vital force” in his presidency’s successes. Heritage released the ninth edition of its “Mandate for Leadership” in 2023.
Later, the Obama administration took into account the work of two newer think tanks, the Center for a New American Security and the Center for American Progress, both of which were founded by alumni of previous Democratic administrations. They adopted ideas and recruited personnel from these organizations: the Wall Street Journal called CNAS a “top farm team” for his administration and CAP was cited as “Obama’s idea factory.”
This election cycle, a few new groups are promoting both policies and transition planning. Recent headlines have made much of their existence, but these are not the first groups to prepare policy for a prospective administration.
Voters choose which specific path they wish the government to take, but the task of enacting campaign promises deserves significant and thoughtful preparation by candidates – both by an incumbent seeking re-election and by the challenger. No matter who wins the election, the public interest requires thoughtful advance planning on policy, personnel and management issues, and that all parties follow law and tradition to ensure a smooth and peaceful transfer of power.
Featured image: CBS’ Margaret Brennan and former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during the Center for Presidential Transition 2024 kickoff event.
As the presidential election approaches, federal agencies are starting to take “election readiness” steps – the required activities to prepare for a possible new administration or a second term for the incumbent.
The Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition supports career officials who lead these planning efforts by organizing the Agency Transition Roundtable: a forum for all agencies, large and small, to talk about how to prepare briefing papers, manage personnel onboarding and offboarding, and execute other work necessary to prepare new agency leaders to govern. The content is based on our Agency Transition Guide and serves to complement the government-run Agency Transition Directors Council.
How government manages agency transition
The Presidential Transition Act requires that the White House and General Services Administration convene an Agency Transition Directors Council to coordinate transition efforts across agencies. The council meets regularly starting in May of a presidential election year and is comprised mostly of representatives from large Cabinet-level agencies, usually the agency’s transition director. Agencies that provide important services during a transition, such as the Office of Government Ethics and the National Archives and Records Administration, are also core participants.
The council is co-chaired by the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and the federal transition coordinator from the GSA, who communicate guidance from the administration. Amendments to the Presidential Transition Act in 2019 require that members of the council be senior career staff, reflecting the important role of the civil service in providing continuity of knowledge and experience across administrations.
What do agency transition directors do?
Agency transition directors are formally named by May of an election year. They serve a crucial leadership role in organizing activities that represent their agency well to both current and potential future leaders. They coordinate briefings on how the department operates, how policies have been implemented and what challenges and opportunities lie ahead for the agency. If an election produces a change in administration, the director is the first point of contact with the winning candidate’s transition team, and the agency team’s output is critical to providing incoming federal leaders with the information needed to govern effectively.
The impact of the Agency Transition Roundtable
In each election cycle since 2016, the Center for Presidential Transition has partnered with the Boston Consulting Group to hold regular meetings of the Agency Transition Roundtable to supplement the efforts of the Agency Transition Directors Council. The roundtable is designed to promote knowledge-sharing, collaboration and best practices in the following ways:
- Build a community of agency transition leaders across the entire government to allow members to have a support network as challenges arise.
- Learn directly from experienced peers who share practical tips and advice based on their experience managing transitions and receive updates from Agency Transition Directors Council co-chairs.
- Develop a foundation of knowledge, especially for first-time agency transition directors, based on lessons learned from previous transitions and recommendations outlined in the latest Agency Transition Guide.
- Dedicate time for leaders to problem-solve the challenges with peers who share their unique responsibilities.
The first Agency Transition Roundtables for this election cycle kicked off in early 2023 with more than 110 individuals from over 60 agencies in attendance and will continue regularly throughout 2024.
Agency transition leaders play a crucial role by preparing incoming leaders and providing continuity during a transition period, regardless of the outcome of the presidential election. By Election Day in November 2024, agency transition directors and their teams will have spent significant time conducting a thorough review of every aspect of their agency. They are uniquely positioned to understand the challenges their agency faces and can continue to play a major role in the success of the agency’s mission even after their official duties as transition directors end.
Nearly half of political agency leaders leave within the first six months of a second term
While planning for presidential transitions is most often associated with candidates running to be a first-time president, incumbents seeking re-election must also engage in transition planning for a second term.
Recent administrations have tended to view a second term as a continuation of the first as opposed to an opportunity to transition to a new administration with refreshed goals, improved processes and new leadership. As Josh Bolten, President George W. Bush’s chief of staff, said, “Every two-term presidency has had the same problem, which is the president doesn’t think of it as a transition.”
A major reason to plan ahead is that incumbent presidents should expect high levels of turnover among top political appointees. In fact, for recent two-term administrations, almost half of top agency leaders leave soon after a re-election victory. Presidents running for a second term should seek to retain top talent whenever possible and identify replacements prepared for the arduous Senate confirmation process.
Data compiled by the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition shows that for the last three two-term presidents, an average of 46% of their top Senate-confirmed officials serving on Election Day left their jobs within the first six months of the second terms. These include Cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries and undersecretaries. On average, 11% of those serving on Election Day resigned their positions even before the re-elected president’s second inauguration, while 31% were no longer serving within three months into the second term.
Turnover is generally high at the Cabinet level. During the period between the election and the early months of the second term, five Cabinet secretaries left the Clinton administration, nine departed the Bush administration and seven left the Obama administration.
The need to plan for a transition to a potential second term
Agency leaders leave for a variety of reasons, whether to accept new opportunities or because the president wanted a change in leadership. However, high turnover among top officials decreases institutional knowledge and has the potential to make long-term, transformational changes more challenging for an agency or administration.
While many presidents have accomplished signature priorities in the first year, in part because of effective transition planning, fifth years have not been nearly as productive. Previous second-term presidents have missed opportunities for early victories because most have minimized the need for advanced planning.
Effective second term transition planning can change turnover challenges into opportunities. Four additional years in the White House offer a chance for a recalibration led by individuals with renewed energy and original ideas. “Newness is a good thing” and an opportunity to look for a “fresh perspective” according to Denis McDonough, who served in both terms of President Barack Obama’s administration.
As Bolten and the Center’s advisory board summarized in 2020, “Every second term administration benefits from fresh eyes and fresh legs. Every second term president experiences significant turnover and an important policy window after the election. Therefore, effective planning is essential given the inevitable turnover, a Senate confirmation process which unfortunately is taking longer, and the fact that the fifth year of a president’s tenure typically provides a window for bipartisan policy development.”
A second term offers a chance for a recalibration and a new start that requires serious preparation long before Inauguration Day. Even though it comes with great challenges, a second term provides the opportunity for a president to retain experienced leaders and bring in individuals with fresh ideas and new energy—should they plan accordingly.
The next presidential election is less than a year away, followed by only 75 days before the inauguration.
The short period between the election and the inauguration is not nearly enough time for a newly elected president to make plans to run the largest, most complex organization in the world, fill the more than 4,000 political appointments and harness a $6 trillion budget.
It is also a short window for a second-term president to decide what changes to make based on lessons from their first term, and ensure both current appointees and new hires are ready to serve in key positions across the government. Data from the Center shows that for the last three two-term presidents, an average of 46% of their top Senate-confirmed officials serving on Election Day left their jobs within six months into the second term, a huge loss that should be anticipated and requires advance planning.
That’s why any candidate running for president should start preparing to govern no later than spring 2024. While early planning was viewed as presumptuous a decade ago, presidential candidates and incumbents alike have come to embrace its value and importance.
Today, outside organizations are already building policy and personnel plans to share with the eventual Republican presidential nominee. As an incumbent running for re-election, President Joe Biden has the opportunity to make every day count by engaging in planning for a second term. Early planning in 2020 helped Biden hit the ground running with more than 1,100 appointees and 17 executive orders on Inauguration Day.
In addition, the law obligates a sitting president to prepare to hand over the reins of power in the event of an election loss, another huge and important task.
It’s a tremendous amount of work for all involved. The good news is that the Center for Presidential Transition is here to help.
Since 2008, the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition has been the leading nonpartisan organization working with presidential candidates’ teams, federal agency leaders, outgoing presidents and those seeking a second term to ensure that effective, peaceful transitions occur every four years.
We are releasing new resources for the 2024 cycle, including:
- New versions of the Center’s Presidential Transition Guide and Agency Transition Guide, which detail transition best practices for candidates and agencies, provide historical materials from past transitions and offer recommendations for successful planning.
- A redesigned presidentialtransition.org website that will serve as a central hub for the Center’s work, research and analysis. It also includes an extensive repository for documentation from previous transitions as well as a comprehensive database of job descriptions for Senate-confirmed positions.
- A new data visualization that uses the Center’s presidential appointments database to illustrate the broken Senate confirmation process.
- Regular posts on the Center’s blog featuring real-time analysis of transition and second-term planning and execution.
- A bi-weekly newsletter that highlights the Center’s research and events, in addition to important news and transition milestones.
Beginning early next year, new episodes of the Center’s podcast, “Transition Lab,” will explore the connections between transition and democracy, and provide analysis of the 2024 transition. The Center also will continue to provide resources for prospective political appointees through its Ready to Serve program and training for new appointees through the Ready to Govern initiative.
So follow along as the Center shares research, resources and expertise throughout the next year. The success of the next presidential transition will determine how prepared we are as a country to face the challenges of the modern world. It is in everyone’s interest to expect and advocate for an effective and peaceful presidential transition in 2024, regardless of who wins the presidency.