When no one agency is responsible for collecting and publishing data on politically appointed officials in the executive branch, that information falls short of what is needed for public and political oversight, according to a March 15 Government Accountability Office report.
“There is no single source of data on political appointees serving in the executive branch that is publicly available, comprehensive and timely,” the report said.
“The public has an interest in knowing the political appointees serving and this information would facilitate congressional oversight and hold leaders accountable. As of March 2019, no agency in the federal government is required to publicly report comprehensive and timely data on political appointees serving in the executive branch.”
According to data from the Government Publishing Office’s 2016 United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions book, also known as the Plum Book, there are over 4,000 politically appointed positions in the federal government, serving as heads of agencies and down into positions within the Senior Executive Service.
The GAO report listed two agencies best positioned to be the publisher and maintainer of political appointee data: the Office of Personnel Management and the White House Presidential Personnel Office.
“OPM is positioned to maintain and make political appointee data publicly available on a timely basis but is limited in its ability to provide comprehensive data. PPO has more comprehensive data but may not be positioned to publish data on a recurring basis. Ultimately, it is a policy decision as to which agency is best positioned to report comprehensive and timely data on political appointees,” the report said.
The Plum Book currently offers the most comprehensive look at the political appointee data possessed by OPM, but, as it is only published every four years just prior to the presidential transition, it only provides a “snapshot in time,” according to GAO, rather than a complete look at real-time data.
OPM also maintains appointee data in the Executive and Schedule C System and the Enterprise Human Resources Integration system, but this data is limited and not always accurate.
PPO, on the other hand, has to maintain accurate and up-to-date information as part of its recruitment and vetting responsibilities for appointee positions, but does not make that data publicly available.
“There are requests by members of the public to obtain data on political appointees serving in the executive branch. For example, between January 2017 and November 2018, OPM received approximately 32 requests through the Freedom of Information Act for data on political appointments across federal agencies,” the report said.
“According to OPM officials, requests for data on political appointees are common and tend to increase at the start of a new administration.”
In the absence of a government organization providing such data, private organizations have taken up the responsibility of tracking and reporting political appointee data for the public, but GAO recommended that Congress pass legislation to formally designate either OPM or PPO as the responsible office for making data on all appointees available to the public.
“Making such information available would promote transparency. The public, including independent researchers, the media and nongovernmental organizations, can use these data to perform independent analyses to identify gaps and challenges for filling political appointee positions or to identify potential conflicts of interest,” the report said.
“Such analyses would also facilitate congressional oversight of executive branch appointees by providing a comprehensive and timely source of information on political appointees.”
The Executive Office of the President did not respond to requests by GAO to comment on the report, and the Office of Personnel Management provided only technical comments.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.