If you’ve been around Washington long enough, the following should come as no surprise: if you’re a government civil servant interested in landing a presidential or political appointment in the new Administration, the chances are not in your favor. Nevertheless, anything is possible during a presidential transition and longshots do come in -- albeit rarely.
Stacked Deck for Govies
Why is the deck stacked against career government employees ("govies")?
First, there will likely be far fewer new appointments available during the current presidential transition because many first-term appointees may retain their posts or move on to new ones. Also, the proverbial chairs will be reshuffled within the White House and federal agencies, as new high-level appointees bring their own teams with them. In fact, transition planning commences even before the election results are known -- see the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010.
Second, if you’re a civil servant, you probably had little or no involvement in the presidential campaign due to The Hatch Act, which contains a long list of rules that strictly limit the involvement of govies in political campaigns generally.
Third, as former President Clinton might say, it’s simply about the arithmetic. There are already countless thousands of campaign workers and supporters nationwide waiting in line, hoping that all of their tireless work, dedication and loyalty -- usually for little or no pay -- will now finally payoff with a newly minted appointment.
However, only a few thousand open appointments exist for tens of thousands of applicants, perhaps up to 100,000 or more -- these are campaign employees and volunteers, plus non-campaign folks. I read somewhere that the ratio of applicants to open appointments during the 2008 presidential transition was around 3,000 to one. Thus your odds may be better at hitting the jackpot on The Strip in Las Vegas.
Obtaining an Appointment
So then, how does one attain a coveted presidential/political appointment in any Administration, whether it’s the first or second term?
The advice is usually the same whether you’re a career government employee or not. However, it’s far more challenging to be selected if you already work for Uncle Sam, primarily due to the many strict prohibitions on political activity under The Hatch Act, as noted above. But don't give up before you at least try. There are always some non-campaign applicants who beat the odds based on luck, timing and other factors.
Following are five ways to land that dream job working in a new presidential Administration:
1 -- Campaign Work
To reiterate, most appointees worked full-time on the campaign making substantive contributions, or worked for someone influential with a lofty campaign title. A key criterion for attaining any job within a new Administration is previous around-the-clock campaign work and “busting your butt” for the winning ticket. Part-time volunteer work counts too, and every little bit helps. As they say, “To the victor belong the spoils."
2 -- Donations
Even if you don't have any campaign work under your belt, there's always the money factor -- and dollar signs speak volumes. Perhaps you, a friend or family member donated or raised a significant amount of cash for the campaign, especially via large contributions. In political terms, these folks are called Bundlers because they solicit and bundle contributions into huge sums in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. Of course, federal workers are again prevented by The Hatch Act from being political fundraisers. However, govies may have made personal campaign contributions within federal limits, which is another important way of showing support.
3 -- Who You Know Well
What if you did no campaign work and made no financial contributions. What now?
We have all heard the popular slogan: It’s not what you know, but who you know. Yet when push comes to shove, it's not just who you know, but who you know well. Do you have an influential political contact who will go out of their way to endorse you and speak highly on your behalf? If so, you may still have a chance.
As political know-it-all and loud mouth talking head Chris Matthews elaborates in his instructive and nostalgic book, "Hardball" -- which shares the same name as his TV talk show on MSNBC -- “It’s not who you know; it’s who you get to know.”
Probably the best contact you can have is anyone you know well in the president’s inner circle of advisors, personal friends or family. Perhaps you have a promising contact from past work on Capitol Hill, K Street, corporate America, or in a previous campaign or Administration? Maybe one of your friends or relatives has a direct link to a political head-honcho?
Any endorsement on your behalf from a top campaign aide or White House advisor is of critical importance. The more influential endorsements you have, the better your chances of landing an appointment. Effective endorsements can also come from members of the Congress -- like your hometown lawmakers in Washington -- as well as state and local political or party leaders (governors, mayors, state party chairs, etc.).
It also helps to be recommended by key advocacy groups or affinity organizations that played a pivotal role in helping the candidate get elected or re-elected. Also, don’t forget about academia. Many past presidential appointees, White House staffers, and trusted advisors are/were professors, college department heads, or university presidents. You may have some connection there.
Regardless of who you know or happen to know well, it's best to start vigorously working all appropriate personal and professional contacts ASAP 24/7 to contend with the cut-throat competition. Fierce networking, persistence and perseverance are all necessary to break through the pack.
4 -- Expertise & Experience
Do you possess impeccable credentials as a leading policy or program expert in your field? Do you have exemplary career accomplishments? Do you have important hands on experience working for a prior Administration, a member of Congress, or a top state official? This can all help a lot, as expertise and experience count.
5 -- Apply & Volunteer
Despite whether you fall into one, some or none of the above categories, you must still register your application and resume online with the presidential transition team. Make sure you are in the official applicant system, otherwise all of your efforts may prove fruitless. On your application, be specific about which departments and agencies you want to work for, and what positions would best suit your experience and skill set.
Also remember that it's never too late to get your foot-in-the-door by volunteering as much as possible -- if possible -- for the presidential transition team. Your chances of success are much enhanced by working from the inside out, rather than the outside in.
If you are lucky enough to volunteer or work for the transition team or the presidential inaugural committee, then remember your time frame is short -- less than three months and counting. Thus, you will definitely need to make the most of this last chance opportunity by not only working your tail off, but also making excellent insider contacts who can help you along the way. Ideally, you should try to become an indispensable part of the operation to the extent possible. Again, the clock is ticking, so take action now.
Combination of Factors
While any one of the aforementioned factors can pave the way for a potential appointment, it usually takes some combination to be successful -- including luck and timing. The more strategic approaches and combinations of key factors you use, the better your odds of securing that coveted appointment.
Good luck and happy hunting.
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* All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.