Learn to make friends and influence people.
For those hoping to get jobs as political appointees, this means you should, ideally, get to know people in all three parts of the Agency-PPO-WHLO triangle. You want the senior people in your favorite agency to be asking for you by name when an appropriate job opens up. You want the staff of that agency's WHLO to be looking out for you and trying to help you find appropriate jobs, and you want the staff in the PPO to be doing the same thing. If you're not already a "priority" applicant, that means you need to get out there and start making friends.
"Talk to everyone," recommends one former White House official. "Your colleagues in your field of expertise -- and especially those who are serving in your agency of choice -- are essential sources of information. Unlike 2008/2009 when the slate was a blank canvas, the hardest thing for aspirants is to find out whether a particular job is likely to be open."
Think about it like this. Back in January 2009, there were some 3000+ open political appointee job slots that did not require Senate confirmation. Most of them got filled within a year, and all but a few hundred remain filled today. Unfortunately for the unconnected, PPO is trying to fill those few hundred open jobs with people the White House "owes" in one way or another. There's the guy who ran the Peoria phone-banking effort, for instance: He's now pounding the pavement in DC and he says he really wants to work on energy policy. Then there's the one-term congresswoman who just lost in a close race: She wants to be a senior White House official. Then there's the protégé of a former cabinet official, and the favorite staffer of the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. They all want jobs -- and there aren't enough jobs to go around.
Meanwhile, PPO is also getting names from officials at the departments and agencies trying to fill key positions -- and through the formal application process everyone can access via the White House website, PPO is also receiving thousands of unsolicited resumes. Most of those unsolicited resumes come from people that PPO staff have never heard of.
Guess which resumes are likely to be considered first?
"Sad fact: Sucking up helps get jobs more than credentials or ability do," says a former State Department official. That's why there are plenty of political appointees out there who -- while undoubtedly smart and capable -- don't necessarily have the most relevant background for the work they're doing. They didn't have to be the most qualified of all the possible applicants out there -- they just had to be the most qualified of the well-connected applicants.
Do not waste time sulking about this. ("I can't believe they appointed Joe Schmo to be deputy assistant to the deputy assistant for Nagorno Karabakh affairs just because he used to be an intern for Senator Moneybags! That idiot can't tell the Karabakh from a calabash, whereas I've written six policy reports and five scholarly articles on gender issues in Nagorno Karabakh!") It is what it is. Get over it.
This doesn't mean you have to be super-connected to get a job -- really, truly, you don't have to be rich or famous -- but it does, unfortunately, mean that it's very hard to get a job if you have no connections at all. And it's virtually impossible to get a political appointment without putting in some significant effort. Unless you're already prominent and well-connected, no one's going to seek you out.
In a better world, the president would have read your perceptive analysis of gender issues in the Nagorno Karabakh during some idle moment on Air Force One, and he'd tell his chief of staff, "Locate that brilliant young analyst and offer him a job at once! This administration needs more people of his caliber!" In this world? Dream on.
Don't despair. Even if you're young or new to D.C.'s political world, finding "connections" isn't actually that hard. You probably already know some people who know some people close to the process -- start asking around. Ask your boss, your colleagues, your professors, your neighbors, and friends. If that doesn't work, start attending think tank events in the areas that interest you -- anyone can sign up for the public event notification mailing lists at Brookings, the New America Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and so on. Go to events and chat with people; go up to panelists, say something intelligent (and non-pompous please!) about the issue under discussion, and then follow up by email: Ask people who impress you if they'd mind sitting down with you for 10 minutes and giving you some general career advice.
Most Washington experts and bigwigs are busy, but they're still just regular people. They like feeling appreciated and important, and they generally like to be helpful (they did go into public service, after all). So don't be shy about asking for a few minutes of their time -- the worst that can happen is they'll be so busy and overwhelmed that they won't get back to you. If you can meet with them, tell them the kind of job you're looking for and ask them who else they think you should talk to. Then reach out to those people.
"Dear Bigwig, Expert #1 suggested that I speak to you. I'm hoping to find a job at the State Department, preferably working on Central Asia issues, and Expert #1 thought you might be able to offer some guidance about what positions might be opening up soon. Would you be willing to spend fifteen minutes talking, at your convenience?"
Lather, rinse, repeat.