As you get smarter and more knowledgeable, you can refine your pitch. (Now you're no longer saying, "I'd like to work on Central Asia policy. Now you're saying, "I'm an expert on gender issues in the Nagorno Karabakh, and I'd like to be able to help shape U.S. policy in that area. Bigwig #7 told me you know the State Department's White House Liaison and the deputy to the deputy for Nagorno Karabakh affairs -- do you have any suggestions on how I might reach out to them?" If you can identify White House Liaison Office staff and PPO staff by name, reach out directly to them as well.
As one political appointee with both White House and DOD experience put it, "If you want to be a political appointee, you need to ‘get' politics enough to treat your job search as a political campaign in and of itself. You need to do your homework and reach out to people." Another former official added, "DON'T assume the people you worked with on the campaign will have pointed you out to anyone" -- you need to be assertive on your own behalf. A former Senate-confirmed appointee was equally blunt: "Work for your own confirmation: no one else cares."
Be cynical, but not too cynical.
The process is not completely nepotistic. "All the unseemly stereotypes apply, but I don't think the system is as gameable as this implies," says Kori Schake, who spent several years on the Bush administration's National Security Staff.
Even the most jaded staffer in the Presidential Personnel Office tries hard not to put ignorant, obnoxious fools into important positions. When a position appears to require particular expertise, PPO staff really do try to find people who possess that expertise -- and if they can't find someone who's "connected," they'll search the database of people interested in jobs. It happens, really. So, tempting as it may be to dismiss the formal process as worthless, don't; instead, make sure you fully and accurately describe your experience and expertise. When someone does a database search for "gender issues" and "Nagorno Karabakh," you want to make sure your application pops up.
One reason positions are at times filled by people without much relevant experience is that the people working in Presidential Personnel are often young and relatively inexperienced themselves. As a result, they may not have a clear sense of what people in particular positions actually need to know and do. This means that you have to help them, by doing your homework. "Be realistic," cautions a former White House senior official. "If you're not sure what kind of job is appropriate for your level of experience, ask around. Or look at others with similar backgrounds and see where they're serving." A former State Department official underscored the point: "[You need to] actually know something about the jobs you want, and how you are qualified for them; your competition will."
If you have rock-solid qualifications for a particular job or jobs, and can bring your qualifications to the attention of agency, WHLO, and PPO staff, you stand a pretty decent chance of getting a position sooner or later. "[There's a] myth is that you must be politically connected and intimately tied to the campaign" to get a job, a DOD political appointee told me. He got his SES-level job because senior Pentagon officials knew his work in a related area and had been impressed; they queried PPO about him, PPO agreed to put him on the slate of candidates, and he was interviewed and hired. He wasn't even a Democrat -- he was just a well-qualified match for a fairly specialized portfolio.
Network...but be patient and don't bug people.
There's a fine line between being assertive on your own behalf and being That Guy. "Raw ambition on display is unattractive," says a former State Department senior official. A former White House official seconds the sentiment: "Don't try too hard. A well-placed, well-timed recommendation or two can be extremely helpful, but it can quickly be overdone. If you have your 10 favorite Senators send letters and your friends calling and emailing everyone they know in the Administration, you will almost certainly annoy the people you want to impress."
Once you've made sure people are aware of your interests and your skills, leave them alone. "Lie low," urges a former senior official at a domestic policy agency. "I have no idea how [the appointments process] works, except...slowly."
"Settle down and accept that the process will move in mysterious ways and will take far longer than you imagined," agreed Suzanne Nossel, a former State Department deputy assistant secretary. "Radio silence is neither a good sign or a bad sign, rather it's simply generally the only sign you get for long stretches... [it] may not signify anything personal."