U.S. Executive branch appointments: why you may want to pursue one and tips for how to do so

by Demosthenes_USA20 min read28th Nov 20207 comments

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PolicyInstitutional decision-makingCareer choice
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Overview

The executive branch of the United States Federal Government has a large impact on nearly every issue of concern to the EA community.  Most executive branch employees are career civil servants.  However, another path to working in the executive branch--particularly at more impactful levels--is through a presidential appointment.  This article will, first, provide an overview of the executive branch and the appointments available.  Second, the article will discuss reasons why you might or might not wish to seek an executive branch appointment. The article will then offer some concrete information about how to seek an appointment. Finally, I will attempt to connect those interested in seeking an appointment in the Biden administration with those who may be in a position to place or recommend an appointment. If you are either seeking an appointment and/or are in position to recommend or place one--or have connections to one who does--please *fill out this form.* 

Though this article is written during the period between the Trump and Biden administrations and is thus most immediately relevant for the transition to the Biden administration, the information here would generally apply to anyone interested in serving in an administration of any party going forward. 

The Executive Branch and appointments generally

The Constitution of the United States divides the federal government into three branches: the Legislative branch (House and Senate) that makes laws; the Executive branch (President, Vice President, cabinet, most federal agencies) that executes laws; and the Judicial (Supreme Court, federal courts) that evaluates laws.  The focus of this article is the executive branch. 

There are generally three parts of the executive branch. A full list of the agencies and sub-components appears at the end of this article in an appendix, but in brief:

  1. The Executive OfficeThe Executive Office of the President is made up of offices and agencies that support the work of the president and vice president.  These include the office of the president and vice president as well as offices such as the National Security Council and Council of Economic Advisors.
  2. Executive Departments (including sub-agencies). Executive Departments are the administrative bodies of the president such as the Department of Defence and Department of Justice. They are headed by cabinet secretaries. Within these Departments are many sub-agencies that support specialized work within their parent executive department agencies.[1]  For instance, within the Department of Justice is the FBI and within the Department of defence is the Army.
  3. Independent agencies. Independent agencies are those not federal executive departments (those headed by a Cabinet secretary) and the Executive Office of the President. They are constitutionally managed by the executive branch, but somewhat independent of presidential control, usually because the president's power to dismiss the agency head or a member is limited.[2]  For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency.
    1. Boards, Commissions, and Committees. Congress or the president establish these smaller organizations to manage specific tasks and areas that don't fall under parent agencies.[3]

Appointments to the Executive Branch

There are generally two types of positions within the Executive Branch: career civil service positions and presidential appointments.  Career civil service positions have a more traditional application process; listings for these positions can be found at usajobs.gov.[4]  The vast majority of the approximately two million federal government employees are career civil servants and thus outside of the scope of this article.[5]  However, a president will typically appoint more than 4,000 individuals to serve in their administration.[6]  There are different types of these presidential appointments with different rules: 

  1. Presidential Appointments Requiring Senate Confirmation (PAS). There are approximately 1,200 PAS positions.[7] These include cabinet secretaries, heads of independent agencies, ambassadors, US attorneys, and the subordinates of each of these officials including Deputies, Under Secretaries, and Assistant Secretaries.  These positions require a congressional hearing and a confirmation vote in the U.S. Senate.[8]
  2. Presidential Appointments Not Requiring Senate Confirmation (PA). There are approximately 450 PA positions.[9] This category includes positions within the Executive Office of the President such as senior White House aides and advisors as well as their deputies and assistants. These appointments do not require a Senate hearing or vote.
  3. Non-Career Senior Executive Service (SES). There are approximately 750 SES positions.[10] Approximately 90% are career civil servants, however up to 10% may be political appointees.  These positions serve as a link between the top appointees and the rest of the federal workforce and include senior management positions within most federal agencies.
  4. Confidential or Policymaking Positions (Schedule C (SC)). There are approximately 1,500 SC positions.[11]  Schedule C appointments are generally considered to be the lowest level of political appointments and must be supervised by a presidential appointee, member of the Senior Executive Service, or another Schedule C appointee. Schedule C positions include confidential assistants, policy experts, special counsels, and schedulers.[12]

Why you might or might not wish to consider working in the executive branch of the US government 

One reason you may wish to work in the executive branch is to have an impact on a problem area of concern to the EA community.  The basic logic that 80,000 Hours used in discussing potential impact as a congressional staffer also applies to the executive branch:[13] 

  • The government can have a big impact on pressing problems.
  • Executive branch appointees’ work shapes the actions of executive agencies.
  • Executive agencies can have a big impact on how the government tackles pressing problems.
  • It’s possible for people who are focused on impact to do more good than the typical executive branch appointee.

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss at length the many ways the executive branch of the federal government has an impact on key problem areas including global poverty, A.I. alignment, global climate change, animal welfare, risk of nuclear war, or great power conflict.[14]  However, it is generally the case that executive branch agencies have wide latitude in promulgating regulations with the force of law that directly impact these areas, as well as set enforcement and budgetary priorities that impact these areas--and of course many other important areas as well. 

As one example of how executive branch agencies impact a problem area, consider global climate change. The Obama administration executive branch agencies including EPA promulgated the “Clean Power Plan” which aims to reduce CO2 emissions from existing power plants by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.  The Trump administration proposed a much less stringent replacement, the “Affordable Clean Energy” rule. The Trump administration has also scaled back or wholly eliminated many federal climate mitigation and adaptation measures.[15] 

Going forward, it is possible, perhaps likely, that change will come more from the executive branch rather than legislative branch given trends in Congress, particularly in a situation of divided government. Thus, working in the executive branch might be particularly effective if most changes in federal policy come through administrative actions rather than new laws passed by congress.

While a position in the executive branch may be highly impactful, there is of course no guarantee that an appointee will necessarily have a large impact.  However, it is also likely that working in the executive branch can build career capital either towards another position in government (e.g., policymaking, congressional politics, party politics - these examples concern the UK but the same logic applies) or in the private or nonprofit sector (e.g., think tank research). The premium paid by the private sector to people who have worked in the executive branch is evidence that this is valuable experience. Note that if you do accept an appointment, once you leave there may be some temporary restrictions on types of activities that you undertake in future non-government jobs.[16]

An important consideration, if an obvious one, is that unlike a civil service position which is nonpartisan and can continue over many administrations, a political appointee is partisan and political appointees are expected to support the policies and goals of the president's administration.  Especially in the era of increasing polarization, working in a Democratic administration is likely to foreclose most opportunities in a Republican administration and vice-versa.  It may also foreclose opportunities in partisan or partisan-leaning NGOs.  Moreover, unlike a civil service position, an appointment is time-limited by the administration, and could end essentially at any time, as appointees generally serve at the pleasure of the appointing authority and do not have the job protections afforded to those in career-type appointments.[17]  However, it is possible, though rare, for political appointees to transition to “career” civil service positions.  This is sometimes called “burrowing in.”[18]

For additional considerations about working in government generally, and why it may or may not be a good fit for you, see this 80,000 Hours article. Though it discusses positions in the legislative rather than executive branch, almost all of the analysis is applicable to most executive branch appointments as well.

When in your career should you seek an appointment?

Some positions such as cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries and other heads of agencies are typically reserved for people with significant experience.[19]  To get a sense of the careers of potential cabinet members and other high ranking members of a Biden administration see this report. There are, however, roles available for people who are earlier in their careers.   It is common for at least some people who are early in their careers to be placed in the executive branch.  For instance, both the Obama and Trump administrations had relatively young people in positions of significance.[20]  These people typically were selected by being connected to the campaign or having prior experience with the candidate or a high level member of their team, however.  So if you are early in your career and don’t already have a relationship with the incoming administration, one of its high level officials, or a well-developed area of expertise a presidential appointment is probably somewhat of a long shot; however, it does not hurt to try to seek one nonetheless. 

Practical advice and resources

How do you find what positions are available?

There is a book called the United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions (colloquially known as the “PlumBook”) that lists presidentially appointed positions within the federal government. The book is published every four years.  Reviewing it is a great place to start compiling a list of the positions that you could be a good fit for. 

The Center for Presidential Transition has also compiled the set of sample position descriptions for presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed positions across the federal government.

If you’re looking for a taste of what positions are considered particularly challenging, you can also look at the “prune book”, in which the National Academy of Public Administration has tried to identify the 40 most difficult management positions in the federal government. These difficult jobs might be somewhat less sought after and thus less competitive. 

How do you actually apply for and receive an appointment?

The center for presidential transitions describes the steps as follows:

  1. Gather information required for vetting forms (questionnaires, background checks, financial disclosure)
  2. Submit resume for position(s) with the Office of Presidential Personnel or presidential transition team.[21]
  3. Interview with the Office of Presidential Personnel, presidential transition team, or agencies and submit personal data questionnaires
  4. With preliminary offer, submit online forms for background investigation (SF-86, SF-85) and financial disclosure (OGE Form 278e, OGE Form 450)
  5. Respond to requests for additional information
  6. Work with agency ethics officials to resolve financial conflicts of interest
  7. Prepare for Senate confirmation hearings
    1. *For Senate-confirmed positions only
  8. Receive official appointment and take the oath of office

Vetting 

As mentioned above, executive branch appointees are vetted by the White House or presidential transition team to uncover any financial, employment or security issues that might prevent you from serving. To see the types of questions you can expect during the vetting process, review this webinar and this draft checklist. Answering ‘yes’ to some of these questions may not necessarily preclude you from serving, but the disclosures may identify potential complications that need to be explained in greater detail.  Anything you have publicly written that is controversial could also be an issue.  Further, if you have complex finances, you may have to make changes to your personal financial holdings to avoid conflicts of interest.

Networking

However, simply submitting a resume (per step one) is no guarantee it will get read or that you will ultimately be selected. The competition is fierce.  In the days immediately following Obama’s election in 2008, 253,000 people submitted resumes into the resume database.[22] To get noticed, you likely need to network with people who have worked on the campaign or are already in government. Thiswebinar offers more tips on this front.[23]

There are also various organizations that seek to advocate for and place aligned individuals within the executive branch — for instance, the LGBTQ Victory Institute and American Constitution Society (left-leaning organization for lawyers), Clean Energy for Biden. If there is a particular affinity group or issue organization that aligns with your interests, you can seek that out.  You can also look at the presidential transition team and see if there is anyone you know or have any connection to, and contact them or any mutual connections.

How can members of the EA community try to assist each other in obtaining presidential appointments? Should they? 

As noted above, some affinity organizations and nonprofits actively seek to place aligned members in executive branch appointments in order to advance the interests of their organization.  To my knowledge there is no such formal effort within the EA community.  Perhaps there shouldn’t be, for the reason that becoming too closely associated with party politics--particularly with only one political party--has downsides. (A full discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of this article, but see discussions on the forum here and here). 

I think it would be, on net, beneficial for members of the EA community to assist each other in obtaining executive branch appointments, however.  To that end, if you are interested in seeking an appointment, OR in a position to help place appointees, please fill out this form and I will seek to match interested parties. 

Appendix - Full list of executive offices; Departments and sub-agencies; and Boards, Committees, and Commissions

[1]See https://www.govinfo.gov/app/collection/govman/2019/03executive_United%20States%20Government%20Manual;

https://www.loc.gov/rr/news/fedgov.html

[2] See https://casetext.com/case/seila-law-llc-v-consumer-financial-protection-bureau

[3] See https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL33313.pdf

[4] See https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45635.pdf

[5] See https://templatelab.com/total-government-employment-since-1962/ 

[6] Unfortunately ““there is no single source of data on political appointees serving in the executive branch that is publicly available, comprehensive, and timely,” https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-19-249

[7] See https://presidentialtransition.org/readytoserve/exploring-job-opportunities/#types

[8] See https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-1251_ed9g.pdf

[9] See https://presidentialtransition.org/readytoserve/exploring-job-opportunities/#types

[10] See https://presidentialtransition.org/readytoserve/exploring-job-opportunities/#types

[11] See https://presidentialtransition.org/readytoserve/exploring-job-opportunities/#types

[12] See https://my.vanderbilt.edu/davidlewis/files/2011/12/invisible-appointees.pdf

[13] See also https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/effective-altruism-in-government-jason-matheny/

https://80000hours.org/podcast/episodes/tom-kalil-government-careers/

https://80000hours.org/topic/careers/government/

https://80000hours.org/career-reviews/policy-oriented-civil-service-uk/

[14] See https://80000hours.org/career-reviews/congressional-staffer/

[15] See https://climate.law.columbia.edu/climate-deregulation-tracker; https://www.brookings.edu/interactives/tracking-deregulation-in-the-trump-era/

[16] See https://www2.oge.gov/Web/oge.nsf/Resources/Political+Appointees

[17] See https://www.gao.gov/assets/660/652573.pdf

[18] See also https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/527631-house-democrats-seek-list-of-trump-appointees-burrowing-in-to-biden

[19] To peruse the careers of potential cabinet members of a biden administration see, e.g., https://filesforprogress.org/reports/progressive-cabinet-project-report.pdf

[20] See, e.g., https://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/magazine/02obamastaff-t.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/promoted-six-times-and-then-fired-the-inside-story-of-a-political-appointees-wild-ride-in-trumps-washington/2018/06/15/ebf6290a-5eab-11e8-8c93-8cf33c21da8d_story.html

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/02/trump-hires-college-student-senior-white-house-aide.html

[21] For instance, at https://apply.whitehouse.gov/

[22] See https://presidentialtransition.org/blog/help-wanted-the-critical-job-of-selecting-4000-presidential-appointees/

[23] See also https://presidentialtransition.org/blog/seeking-a-political-appointment/

[24] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Executive_Office_of_the_President_of_the_United_States

[25] See https://www.govinfo.gov/app/collection/govman/2019/03executive_United%20States%20Government%20Manual;

https://www.loc.gov/rr/news/fedgov.html; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_federal_executive_departments

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Hi, this seems like a great idea, but I'm a little concerned that readers are being asked to provide lots of personal information in a Google Form on the invitation of an anonymous account with no prior EA Forum posting history. I understand that you may not want to reveal your full identity, but could you perhaps provide some details on who you are in the style of a Reddit AMA to help give us confidence that you have both the intention and ability to follow through on the matchmaking proposal you're outlining in this article?

Thanks Ian, good point. I shared a draft of this post with Aaron Gertler before I posted it; he should be able to help confirm I am not up to anything nefarious.  I'm happy to answer questions in an AMA, too, though I'll maintain my anonymity. I was originally going to publish under my own name (which is my other user name on the forum) but was advised not to, basically for the reason that anything you publish can end up scrutinized  as part of the appointment process and better safe than sorry.  I do have the intention of matchmaking as outlined in the post. As to my ability to follow through, I don't want to overstate my position here--I'm not myself a member of the transition team or anything, though I do have former colleagues/acquaintances etc who are.  All I can do at this point is pass on promising resumes to folks I know if it seems fruitful, and reach out to others who answer the survey who are in a position to do the same.   Hope that helps!

Echoing Ian's comment, I'd appreciate if you could share more information about your background. I understand that you want to remain anonymous but maybe you could share how you're connected to folks on the transition team, potentially how influential you expect your recommendations to be, if there are any departments you have more or less influence in, etc. so folks can judge whether they want to expose all of this info to you.

Sure, I'm happy to share a bit more about myself,  and I will also clarify how I intended the google doc to work.  

I'm a career civil servant in DC,  I work at a cabinet-level agency where I've been for approximately 10 years.  I am not a member of the transition team (see response to Ian, above).  My connections to the incoming administration are through current and former colleagues, friends, and various folks I know here in DC who I'd classify mostly as "weak ties."[1]    

My goal for the google doc is for it to function as a means of networking for folks within the EA community interested working in the exec branch and in the new administration.  There are many similar networking efforts underway both formal and informal;  I mention a few  formal ones in the post (e.g., American Constitution Society, LGBT Victory, etc).   

On the backend, all I would plan to do is to connect  folks who are either (1) in a position to recommend or place appointments in a given area or agency and/or (2) seeking an appointment in a given area or agency.   For certain agencies I may be in a position to make such a recommendation but certainly I don't want to give the impression that I am the head of Presidential Personnel Office or anything like that!

I don't view the information asked for in the google doc as particularly sensitive (it's basically just a resume drop) but if there's anything in your resume you aren't comfortable sharing, then you probably should not use the doc.  (Or if there's a way you'd be more comfortable sharing this information please let me know!)

[1] See https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1059601101264003; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1303070117300495

Thanks, if Aaron's willing to chime in here and vouch for you then I'll consider my concerns moot. :)

I vouch for this user! I know their real name, and my interactions with them lead me to believe that they really do want to help people find positions in government.