So, you want to be a political appointee in the Obama administration's second term? With cabinet leadership turning over at State and DOD, half the people I know are wondering how to get their feet in the door. (The other half are wondering if anyone will be willing to pay their salaries when they finally leave their current jobs in the administration). But despite the many eager job candidates, there's not much honest or useful information available on how to find administration jobs. (For a rare exception -- perhaps more honest than useful -- see this 2008 piece by an anonymous job seeker, who did, in the end, get a fantastic job.) As one current political appointee puts it, the "selection of the Pope is probably clearer" than the process of getting a political appointment.
My own wisdom on getting political appointee positions falls primarily into the "Do As I Say, Not As I Do" category, so I supplemented my insights by asking friends and colleagues what advice they would share with job hunters. A dozen current and former senior officials -- from State, DOD, the White House, and a major domestic agency -- were generous enough to share their candid thoughts.
So, herewith, the Unofficial Guide to Getting a Job as a Political Appointee.
Tip #1, of course, is "Be a rich donor." Then you can be an ambassador!
You're not rich? Try harder. Or make rich friends and start asking them for money. Or see Tip #2.
Tip #2: Work your butt off for the campaign.
You know the drill. Someone's got to run phone-banking in Peoria. This won't necessarily get you a job, but it will at least help your résumé move up in the pile. (See below.)
Too late for phone-banking? Don't despair. You can always try...
Tip #3: Be a cabinet secretary's protégé.
You learned diplomacy at John Kerry's feet? You've been Chuck Hagel's right-hand man for the last four years? You can stop reading, because you already have a job.
The remaining insights are for the rest of you peons. You know who you are; here's what you need to know.
The Basics: The Agency-PPO-WHLO Triangle
To begin with, you need to understand the three key institutional actors in the political appointment process.
First, there are the departments and agencies: the State Department, the Treasury Department, USAID, DOD, and so on. The vast majority of political appointee jobs are in the departments and agencies. All those positions are listed in the so-called Plum Book, but the Plum Book just gives job titles, classifications, and names of the most recent people to hold each position. "The Plum Book is like the Rosetta Stone," says a current appointee. "It's full of useful information, but only if you can crack the code. You need to understand that job titles and grades are almost meaningless."
At any given time, officials in the departments and agencies are trying to hire lots of people both for positions listed in the Plum Book and positions they're in the process of creating. (Organizational structures and job titles change all the time.) Sometimes they're trying to hire specific people: A new deputy assistant secretary of state wants to hire his former research assistant as a special assistant, for instance. Other times, they're just trying to find someone with the right expertise: An assistant administrator at USAID needs an expert on gender issues in Central Asia.
But senior agency officials can't just hire and fire on their own, because that would be too easy. No -- they have to work with the Presidential Personnel Office to get someone brought in as a political appointee. And unless they're extraordinarily senior (cabinet level or just below, in which case they can just call the head of the Presidential Personnel Office, or the president, for that matter), they generally get to the Presidential Personnel Office through their agency's White House Liaison.