Data Dive

At some agencies, acting leadership often outlasted permanent appointees over last 4 years

The Trump administration left open more non-competitive positions near the end of its four years in office compared to the two previous terms. Some of those vac...

Every new administration has plenty — in fact, thousands — of key leadership and policymaking jobs to fill.

The most recent Policy and Supporting Positions publication, otherwise known as the Plum Book, shows just how difficult that task can be.

The Trump administration left open more non-competitive positions near the end of its four years in office than the previous two terms, and for some agencies, acting executives outlasted permanent leadership in several key jobs in the federal government.

According to a Federal News Network analysis of three recent Plum Books, the Trump administration had 1,583 vacant positions within cabinet and independent agencies near the end of its term.

The Plum Book shows the status of more than 9,000 leadership and support positions subject to noncompetitive hiring at a specific point in time, in this case, June 30, 2020. The status and makeup of those positions will change between June and the end of a president’s term, but the Plum Book is designed to give incoming administrations a sense of the task they have to staff up their agencies.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee, which trades publication responsibilities every four years with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, distributed the 2020 version.

A comparison of the cabinet and independent agency positions listed in the 2020, 2016 and 2012 Plum Books shows the Trump administration filled slightly more of them through the Schedule C appointment authority compared to the previous two terms.

The Trump administration also relied on fewer career appointments, 2,484, compared to the previous two terms of the Obama presidency. The Obama administration employed 3,081 career appointees in 2012 and 2,773 in 2016.

The data shows the Trump administration also left more presidential appointments unfilled in June 2020 compared to the previous administration.

Click the arrow below to view another comparison of non-competitive appointment types over the last two administrations. 

The Partnership for Public Service and the Washington Post tracked 757 positions requiring Senate confirmation throughout the Trump administration. Federal News Network analyzed data for more than 50 of those positions.

At the Department of Homeland Security, for example, acting executives led the agency for more than half of the administration, 763 days compared to 698 days under permanent, Senate-confirmed leadership.

Acting leaders took up the DHS deputy secretary position for a total of 1,085 days during the Trump administration, while temporary leaders held the department’s undersecretary for management job for a total of 846 days.

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee acknowledged the vacancies Tuesday when they discussed the nomination for Alejandro Mayorakas, the president’s pick to lead DHS.

“We need to get someone in place in that department,” said Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the incoming ranking member of the committee. “Morale is bad, and the leadership void is real. It’s very important we have someone in place who’s accountable.”

The committee voted 7-4 to advance Mayorkas’ nomination to the full Senate for a floor vote.

Other top jobs within the department lacked permanent leadership for multiple years.

DHS was without a permanent deputy secretary since April 2018, for a total of 1,085 days. Acting leadership took on the DHS undersecretary for management job for a total of 846 days.

Customs and Border Protection, one of DHS’ largest subcomponents, operated without permanent leadership for 857 days.

Acting leaders held a few key positions with broad personnel responsibilities for the majority of the last four years.

The Office of Personnel Management clocked a total 1,033 days with acting leadership. The agency had two, Senate-confirmed directors during the Trump administration, but each served only 241 and 187 days, respectively.

While vacancies have been common at OPM since the latter years of the Obama administration, the Defense Department experienced an unusual gap in permanent leadership with its own top personnel job throughout much of the Trump presidency.

Acting leaders held DoD’s undersecretary for personnel and readiness job for a total of 918 days.

Three positions were completely vacant for the entirety of the Trump administration. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had no permanent director throughout the last four years, and the Office of Management and Budget operated without a controller for the entire administration.

The Department of Veterans Affairs didn’t have a single permanent undersecretary for health throughout the Trump administration.

Yet several cabinet secretaries led their agencies for the vast majority of the administration, with only a month or so of acting leadership near the beginning of Trump’s presidency to allow for the Senate confirmation process.

Despite her resignation near the end of the administration, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was the longest serving cabinet secretary during the Trump presidency, where she led the department for 1,437 days.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin came in close second, serving 1,436 days.

The secretaries for the Agriculture, Commerce and Education Departments, as well as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, also led their agencies for at least 1,400 days.

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