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Career Officials versus Appointees in Washington, D.C.

The federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., is composed of people who have chosen to pursue a career in government, as well as political appointees who enter government to serve a particular presidential administration. Career officials enter government through competitive means (such as via exams and through open competition for vacancies), while political appointees are selected by the incumbent administration.

Appointees usually are selected on the basis of connections with a political party, be it through fundraising, campaign work, previous experience, or a particular political profile. Their role, essentially, is to provide top-down direction with respect to the political and policy priorities of the current president.

The ratio of politically appointed to career officials varies widely by department and agency, and it depends on the seniority and influence of the positions in question. Normally, political appointees are predominant in the higher echelons of an agency, although some federal agencies (such as the CIA and FBI) are staffed almost entirely by career professionals.

The famous Plum Book (nicknamed after its color), officially titled the United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions, is closely identified with the system of noncareer appointments.

Published after every presidential election, the book contains a list of more than 9,000 jobs that may be filled outside of the government’s normal competitive service laws. Most of these positions fall under the executive branch, though a select few posts, such as the Architect of the Capitol and Librarian of Congress, are actually within the legislative branch of government.

While all positions may be filled by the President, some require confirmation by the Senate.

Most federal officials do their jobs because they want to make government, and thus our country, work better. But to some extent, how they do their jobs depends on their status as career or appointed officials. If you work with both career officials and political appointees, here are some differences you may notice:

  • Political appointees are more likely to rely on other political appointees when seeking advice or action; career officials are more likely to trust and take advantage of existing bureaucratic structures.

  • Career officials are generally more tolerant of longer time horizons for results; political appointees are very conscious of their limited opportunity to influence events.

    Career officials run the government. If you want to influence policy formulation, going around or over the head of the responsible career official is a mistake. While in some cases a political appointee may be the official you need to start with, it’s always unwise to risk alienating officials whose cooperation you’ll need later.

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