Improving the Plum Book: The Need to Modernize Information about Federal Leadership

September 17, 2020

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In many cases, the best option is to refer to the “Plum Book,” a government document produced every four years that is outdated by the time it is published.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.