It’s time again to worry about the ‘burrowing in’ of political appointees, lawmakers say

With about a year left for the Obama administration, the quadrennial tradition of political appointees deciding whether or not to make Washington a permanent home has begun.

This practice of “burrowing in” isn’t new, though it’s something public administration experts say is wise to monitor, but not necessarily in need of a red flag.

“I think that every administration is accused of having a lot of ‘burrowing in,’” said Jeff Neal, senior vice president of ICF International and former chief human capital officer for the Homeland Security Department. “I think in the past it has been more of an issue, but I know from what I saw in the Bush administration and what I’ve seen in the Obama administration, it’s nowhere near the problem that people think it is.”

But four Republican congressmen are calling on the Government Accountability Office to review the practice of converting political appointees to civil servants.

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Earlier this week, Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), and Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) sent a letter to the GAO urging it to review conversions between June 1, 2009 and Oct. 1, 2015, along with an Office of Personnel  Management directive from 2010 that outlined a checklist for making this type of appointment.

The possibility that political appointees are ‘burrowing in’ — through favoritism in the selection process, effectively taking civil positions that would otherwise be open to the public and awarded based on merit — may affect the integrity of the merit-based federal workforce,” the congressmen stated in their letter. “Therefore, we are writing to request that GAO conduct a study to ensure that federal agencies and full-time commissions are following appropriate authorities and proper procedures in making conversions of non-career to career positions.”

Neal said he’s seen political appointees burrow in, and while others can get frustrated by the practice, “the truth is, sometimes political appointees are extremely well qualified.”

The idea that there are thousands of political appointees digging in for a career position “is just silly,” Neal added. Not only are there not that many political appointees, “most of them probably wouldn’t want a federal job — they don’t pay enough.”

But Jon Desenberg, senior policy director at the Performance Institute, which is helping to lead the Transitions in Governance 2016 coalition, said burrowing in is much more than making appointments.

“Burrowing in is really a symptom of the larger problem of all of these thousands of political people facing a sort of unemployment situation,” Desenberg said. “Unfortunately, the side effects of big money politics are there are a lot of people you have to repay favors to, a lot of people feel they have something coming to them after they support a candidate. It’s kind of slowly spun out of control.”

Desenberg said while it’s hard to blame junior political appointees — lower-level, young workers— wanting to stick around town, the problems begin when they start working alongside 30-year veteran managers and career senior executives without properly being vetted.

“I don’t see this as epidemic, I see this as substantial,” Desenberg said. “But if you’re going to put a number on it, maybe 10 to 15 percent of the political workforce is trying to do this, in the time when the federal government is not hiring a lot of new people, it’s still significant.”

That’s a concern also voiced by Timothy Dirks, interim president for the Senior Executives Association.

“We fully understand that some political appointees who make the switch to the career civil service may be the best candidates for the position, and believe that providing transparency and sunlight to the conversion process can aid in preventing its abuse,” Dirks said in a statement that was mailed to the four congressmen. “SEA is particularly concerned about burrowing in to SES and equivalent positions. As you know, the positions that senior executives hold are some of the most difficult and complex in the federal government and require expertise that is built up from years of experience. We have seen some cases where political employees or candidates for employment are placed in senior executive positions for which they may be unqualified or less qualified than other candidates, or where their service as political appointees was given undue weight. Most of those experienced with the federal personnel system understand that this can be attempted through hiring actions with limited competitive areas of consideration, short announcement times and narrowly defined statements of required technical qualifications. Political influence and pressure can also contribute non-meritorious selections.”

The last time GAO reviewed “burrowing in” was in 2009. The agency looked at hires between May 1, 2005 and May 30, 2009. During that time, auditors found that of the 42 departments reviewed, 26 of them had reported hiring political appointees to career positions, for a total of 139 conversions. Close to 60 percent of those hires came in the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Defense, Energy and Commerce.

“Agencies appeared to have used appropriate authorities and followed proper procedures in making the majority (92) of the 117 conversions reported at the GS-12 level or higher,” the report stated. “However, for seven of these conversions documentation indicates that agencies may not have adhered to merit system principles, followed proper procedures, or may have engaged in prohibited personnel practices or other improprieties. Some of the improper procedures included pre-selecting particular individuals for career positions and selecting former political appointees who appeared to have limited qualifications and/or experience relevant to the career positions”

OPM reviewed those five cases and found that two were “converted improperly,” and were referred to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

OPM also took steps in 2010 to address this concern. Then-Director John Berry outlined a checklist for human resources directors and chief human capital officers to follow when handling the hiring of political appointees for civil service jobs.

The memo was most recently updated on Nov. 17 to reflect current points of contact, organization name changes and to bring the checklist up to date.

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