The goal of a presidential transition team is not only to help the president-elect prepare to take office, but to fill roughly 4,000 politically appointed positions, including more than 1,000 jobs requiring Senate confirmation.
Identifying, selecting and securing Senate confirmation of presidential appointees requires a thorough understanding of the number and types of presidential appointments that will need to be made, the skills that are needed in various positions, the importance of diversity among appointees and how the leadership team that is chosen will drive the new administration’s agenda for the next four years.
Filling such a large number of presidential appointments, including members of the Cabinet, the White House staff and top policy and management positions at each federal agency, requires immense capacity, organization and discretion within the transition team’s presidential personnel office. The appointments team is often among the largest within a presidential transition organization. The Clinton transition team’s appointments office had close to 100 members and the Romney Readiness Project had 124 people working or volunteering on the presidential appointments by Election Day.
During the transition, the appointments team should be structured around groups focused on different policy or governance areas, such as national security, economic affairs, health care, education and internal management. Because of the sensitivity of the nomination and appointments process, the appointments team should be housed separately from the rest of the transition office. The appointments staff should work closely with both the policy and agency review teams to identify priority positions based on the policy agenda of the new administration and to generate lists of candidates for each agency based on their particular needs and issues.
To accomplish these goals, the appointments team’s work should begin in the pre-election period and continue through the election, the inauguration and the first year of the administration to identify and vet—through both public and non-public means—candidates for key agency roles.
White House positions are especially important, and staffing the White House is largely the domain of the incoming chief of staff. These positions do not require Senate confirmation, but play a critical role in building the rest of the administration. The White House should be fully staffed before the inauguration.
The appointments team is responsible for recommending Cabinet members as well as individuals for undersecretary and assistant secretary positions, and other critical management jobs. The top 100 leadership positions, including the Cabinet secretaries, should be filled soon after the inauguration. Another 300 critical positions throughout federal agencies should be filled by the congressional recess in August, roughly 200 days into the new administration.
The appointments team also must develop a system for identifying, screening and processing lower level political appointees, such as Schedule C or non-career Senior Executive Service positions.
Based on these targets, the activities of the appointments team should begin as early as late spring of the election year with the selection of an appointments director. By August, the appointments team should have developed rough lists of candidates for agency heads and other key positions, and should begin the initial vetting process of candidates using public sources. The period between the election and the inauguration will be a sprint as the appointments team prepares nominees for their Senate confirmation hearings and works with General Services Administration and outside experts to provide all political appointees with a robust orientation program. The presidential appointments team should set internal milestones guiding how many and which key positions it will try to fill at different points in the transition process.
Best practice generally dictates having White House positions filled by Thanksgiving, and the most important Cabinet positions ready to announce between Thanksgiving and Christmas so that the nominees will have time to be briefed and prepare for Senate confirmation hearings. This timeframe also enables Senate committees to prepare for a high volume of nominees and to complete as much vetting work as possible prior to the start of the New Year. The time from January 1 until the inauguration is a frenzied period when confirmation hearings begin for the most senior nominees and the Senate itself is in the midst of a post-election reorganization.
The work of the appointments team continues well into the president’s first year in office, as the baton is passed to the Office of Presidential Personnel in the new administration. Fully staffing the president’s senior leadership team by the August recess (approximately 200 days into the presidency) is critical to ensuring the government can effectively carry out the president’s agenda and serve the American public.