Building a People Machine at the White House

By Sharon MarcilMeldon WolfgangScott Gould, and Brad Carson

President Obama is not the only one leaving office next January 20th. The spotlight will certainly be on him and his family as they depart the White House, but joining them through the exit door will be about 4,000 political appointees, all heading for new challenges. 

Such a wholesale change has its advantages—it affords the new president the opportunity of a fresh start and new ideas, for example—but there are also some significant drawbacks. The federal government, the largest organization in the world, is left without key leaders in position should an economic, health, or military crisis hit. No wonder building a new team quickly and effectively has always been an important determinant of success for a new president. 

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Recruiting a diverse group, matching the talent pool to specific jobs, and working with the Senate to seek confirmation for nominees are just a few of the hurdles that explain why most modern presidents have fewer than 300 of their top appointees in place nine months after their inauguration. So, what can be done to accelerate this process?

Rules for Recruitment

It’s not all bad news. Recent legislative changes have made it easier to appoint leaders without Senate confirmation. Advance planning by both the transition teams and potential candidates—for example, by advancing the slate of qualified candidates, preparing disclosures, and conducting advance background checks—can help speed the review of all those whose appointments still have to be confirmed by the Senate. 

The new president would also be well advised to give a member of the inner circle enough staff to recruit and train a cadre of leaders from which the final nominees can emerge, and these candidate lists should be ready by late October. This list could and should include incumbents whose high performance is mirrored by a willingness to stay on and serve. 

New—or pending—arrivals to federal service can often find themselves in need of some navigational assistance. It would be beneficial to establish an early training program and a self-questionnaire in order to help those who are interested in serving to assess quickly and realistically the requirements they must meet. These will include ethical, experiential, and financial disclosure criteria.

Teaming for Transition

Of course, the White House is far from the only stakeholder in this process. Congress, too, has a vital role to play. This means that the new White House congressional team should solicit views on agency and mission challenges, obtain candidates, and include them in the candidate-screening process. Similarly, the White House government relations team should solicit views from interest groups on prospective candidates and track the results of this process. 

It is important to remember that the hiring process is a two-way street. The new administration should commit to completing its deliberations in a timely fashion, while candidates need to adhere strictly to submission deadlines. The Office of Presidential Personnel and the White House Personnel Office can then choose the best candidates they wish to nominate. A commitment to turnaround standards, especially for scheduling and completing interviews, can minimize delays in confirmation. 

Technology is another tool in the box. After a rocky start, the federal government has made good strides in its digital deployment in recent years. With this in mind, web tools such as LinkedIn and Monster should be used to provide a diverse pool of qualified candidates. But this is only one step. Departments should also look specifically at private-sector organizations that resonate strongly with their mission—so the Treasury would look to larger financial institutions, for example. 

And, of course, not all positions require Senate confirmation. For roles such as chief financial officer and chief human capital officer, the incoming administration should block-train and block-appoint in order to get the new personnel up and running in their jobs as soon as possible.

The Clock Is Ticking

This latter point is particularly important. Citizens (rightly) expect the new government to hit the ground running. Maintaining a speedy pace should involve certain guidelines, such as establishing and maintaining communications with all selectees and providing a transparent progress chart, so that potential nominees can track their progress. They should also help nominees by assigning a Sherpa who can guide them through to confirmation and help them navigate the potential landmines that are part and parcel of any Senate confirmation. 

Ever since FDR, presidents have viewed the first 100 days of their presidency as a key landmark. It seems sensible, then, to aim to train all nominees prior to, and during, this period to align on the new administration’s agenda. This should also involve ensuring that appointees know that their performance will be tracked and that they have someone who will help manage their professional development. In turn, this will help strengthen team dynamics across the senior team in each agency—something that has previously been overlooked in the confirmation and appointment process. 

The course from nomination to confirmation rarely runs in a straight line. But the course corrections during this journey should not obscure its vital importance. At a time of stormy waters for our body politic, a steady hand on the tiller of government is one ambition we should all be able to agree on.