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Six Ways that the Obama Administration Can Improve the Political Appointment Process

SOURCE: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Obama announces some of his nominations for political appointments, including Attorney General-designate Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary-designate Janet Napolitano, and Secretary of State-designate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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Report: Let’s Get it Started: What President-Elect Obama Can Learn from Previous Administrations in Making Political Appointments

Numbers: Presidential Appointments by the Numbers

The political appointment process will kick into high gear this week as President Barack Obama takes office. President Obama’s ability to press his agenda depends on quickly filling key positions and limiting turnover over the long run. He can accomplish these objectives by learning from previous presidents and improving the nominating process.

A recent Center for American Progress study found that the executive branch holds up appointments more than the Senate. It took presidents an average of 173 days to nominate non-cabinet agency heads from 1987 to 2005, and it took the Senate an average of 63 days to confirm these nominations. An even bigger difference exists for deputy non-cabinet agency heads—it took presidents an average of 301 days to nominate and the Senate 82 days to confirm.

Positions do not stay occupied for long once they are filled. Many leave after just a few years of service. Then the president has to go through the nominating process all over again. Executive agency positions were vacant an average of 25 percent of the time over the past five administrations because of this rapid turnover.

President Obama can speed the nominating process and increase appointee tenure by following these six recommendations.

1. The president should get executive agency officials to commit to serve for a full presidential term. It would be easy to ask applicants to make this commitment as part of President-elect Obama’s extensive vetting form.

2. All agency leaders should receive more comprehensive and institutionalized training, similar to training available to new members of Congress. If agency leaders perform better and face less hostile oversight, they will be more likely to serve longer.

3. Congress should increase agency leaders’ salary and benefits. Increased pay decreases the opportunity cost of entering public service for several years.

4. The president should pay more attention to lower-level appointments in executive agencies. Although lower-level appointments do not grab headlines, they will be instrumental in carrying out the president’s agenda and thus should be treated as presidential priorities.

5. The presidential personnel office should plan for future appointments after initial appointees take their positions. The personnel office should anticipate that each Senate-confirmed executive agency position will be filled, on average, by at least two people during a presidential term. This will allow the president to respond quickly when key appointees leave.

6. The president should ask political appointees in federal agencies to provide four weeks notice of resignation. This notice would allow the presidential personnel office to start actively vetting individuals for appointment before the presiding office holder departs.

Report: Let’s Get it Started: What President-Elect Obama Can Learn from Previous Administrations in Making Political Appointments

Numbers: Presidential Appointments by the Numbers


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