April 13, 2021

Why people with state and local experience should serve as presidential appointees

By Alissa Ko

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.

I could never have imagined that a daughter of immigrants who “accidentally” picked a career working on state issues and campaigns would ever end up in the White House as a presidential appointee.

Through hard work, luck and a decade in state-based advocacy and political campaigns in California, I was able to make the leap to Washington, D.C. People who have experience at the grassroots may be surprised to learn how well-prepared they are for working at the national level – and especially serving as presidential appointees.

Here are a few reasons why people with experience outside the nation’s capital are well-suited for a presidential appointment.  

You have experience seeing how government impacts communities 

Having a background on state and local issues provides a good perspective on how the government touches lives and communities every day. Your background can help shape policy because you understand the opportunities and challenges communities face. For example, if you currently work in health care, you have first-hand knowledge of the issues associated with the coronavirus pandemic. Your perspective and relationships can be helpful in shaping policy. 

Living in Washington, D.C., can mean you are far away from what is happening at the state or local level. That is why federal agencies have regional offices throughout the country to connect staff with the communities they serve. These outreach efforts would benefit from your on-the-ground experience. 

Local governments are the “incubators for innovation”

Former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez called state and local governments the “incubators for innovations” because a wealth of good policy ideas originate there. Policies like paid family leave were approved by localities and states, and demonstrated that such reforms are possible and have been beneficial.

People who have worked on state and local issues can bring together policy expertise and coalitions on a wide range of subject areas. Shaping federal policies dealing the economic recovery, for example, can benefit from ideas that have worked at the local level. My previous experience helped me facilitate engagement between the federal and state governments.  

You know how to get things done

In any large organization, effective people are the ones who know how to get things done by managing and navigating systems. A person with success on a local campaign or in state government understands this well. Working in the federal government has a similar dynamic. For example, to implement an executive order or host a conference, you need to interact with numerous departments and understand many different processes. The ability to navigate a complex environment is something a person with political campaign experience understands.

Becoming an appointee is not an easy process. But even though you may not realize it, people with experience and knowledge earned at the state and local levels provide an important perspective and great value to the federal government. 

Alissa Ko is director of strategic giving and community engagement at Health Net. She served as a senior advisor at the White House during the Obama administration, leading outreach to states attorneys general, state legislators and the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.