Politicals learn: Burrowing is for groundhogs

If Eldin Bernecky was a political appointee, he’d be trying to get a permanent position in the federal bureaucracy as the Obama administration enters its final year. But he probably would have to leave on Inauguration Day.

Eldin was the interior painter who became practically a permanent fixture in the home of fictional TV reporter Murphy Brown. It took him six years, or seasons,  to complete the repainting of Murphy’s D.C. home. He became a sort of adviser and confidant.

We had a painter like that when we first moved to the D.C. area nearly 25 years ago. He took so long to re-do the inside our of house, my then 3-year old son started to think of him as a member of the family and wondered why the painter never took a bath.

However much career people may come to like and respect the political appointees, and vice versa, politicals and non-career senior executives can’t simply waltz into permanent, career jobs. That’s called burrowing, and it’s considered bad form. Since the Carter administration, burrowing has been discouraged by administrations of both parties. It’s not impossible, but burrowing in requires a lot of hassle and oversight. These hurdles prevent a certain philosophy from embedding itself in the civil service for the purpose of thwarting the policies of the next administration. They protect the merit principle of competitive hiring. And they prevent the White House from rewarding (or planting) people in a way that dilutes the ideas of civil service.

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It’s not easy to leave, lay low for a few months, then come back as career. The Office of Personnel Management reviews an application for anyone who served politically in the past five years.

This week, Acting OPM Director Beth Cobert issued detailed instructions for how an above-board conversion has to happen. Check out the frequently-asked-question link to get a really good understanding of how and why OPM will approach its reviews. For example, I learned that OPM reviews apply not just to policy types but also to scientific and professional positions.

In making it difficult for politicals to burrow into civil service positions, the government follows a practice that many large companies don’t. The private sector loves consultants. Often a management consultant will get hired by a company as a permanent employee. It even happens at the CEO level and other C-level positions. In such cases, the company’s senior management or board of directors specifically wants a new hire’s policies and practices to establish themselves throughout the organization. In the federal government, careful distinction is made between the day-to-day operations and the policy making. See my interview with research professor Paul Light, who speaks about this in some depth.

Of the 1,000 or 1,200 political positions, very few appointees actually do apply to burrow in. In fact, most depart early for the misty shores of think tanks, consultancies, and corporate USA. This Politico piece nicely described the “vanishing” administration.  The corollary to people leaving early is that, late in an administration, few people want to join if the job will only last a few months and you won’t be able to get much accomplished.

If I were an appointee — and I never will be — I’d think I’d enjoy staying until noon on Inauguration Day and taking one last look at whatever place I was working in. The President himself has to get the heck out of the White House on the dot so the cleaners and painters can come in and ready the office for the new guy. Those painters have to work faster than Eldin.

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