Committee pushes US government on ‘conversion’ of political appointees to civil servants

By on 22/07/2016 | Updated on 24/09/2020

The main US parliamentary committee has launched an investigation into the conversion of political appointees to civil servants – a process which runs the “risk of favouring political staff at the expense of more qualified career applicants” and creates “morale problems,” committee chairman Jason Chaffetz said.

Chaffetz, who leads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote a letter to 23 government departments on Wednesday stating: “Such conversions, sometimes referred to as ‘burrowing’, run the risk of favouring political staff at the expense of more qualified career applicants.

“Conversions also create morale problems, in that qualified career applicants who lose out on promotions to applicants from the agency’s political staff can rightly wonder if the process was legitimate.

“The appointing officials must ensure each conversion of a political appointee to a career position results from a fair and open competition.  

“Hiring decisions must be free from political interference, legitimate, and justified.”

The committee requested that every agency provide it with information on the number of conversions from 1 September 2015; all documents explaining the reasoning behind appointments as well as information of conversions where “the appointing agency did not provide sufficient information to justify the employment action.”

Once political appointees are converted they have more job security and become harder to dismiss by a new incoming government, for instance.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump would seek to purge the federal government of officials appointed by Democratic president Barack Obama and could ask Congress to pass legislation making it easier to fire public workers, Trump ally, Chris Christie, said on Tuesday, according to Reuters news agency.

Christie, who is governor of New Jersey and leads Trump’s White House transition team, said the campaign was drawing up a list of federal government employees to fire if Trump defeats Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the 8 November presidential election, Reuters reports.

He said: “It’s called burrowing. You take them from the political appointee side into the civil service side, in order to try to set up … roadblocks for your successor,” adding that firing civil servants was “cumbersome” and “time-consuming.”

He also said: “One of the things I have suggested to Donald is that we have to immediately ask the Republican Congress to change the civil service laws. Because if they do, it will make it a lot easier to fire those people.”

Responding to Christie’s comments on targeting political appointees on Wednesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that allowing appointees to apply for career civil service positions was “a longstanding precedent.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union in the United States, said while it was concerned about the practice of “burrowing,” current law protected most federal employees from at will firing.

“The federal government is a serious undertaking. It’s not a reality TV show, with ‘You’re fired!’,” Jacqueline Simon, policy director at AFGE, told Reuters.

“Just as we don’t want to hire anybody for political reasons, we don’t want anybody to be fired for political reasons,” she said.

As of March 2016, there were a total of 3,164 political appointees, 852 of whom were presidential appointees.

In its most recent report on the topic, the Government Accountability Office said in 2010 that 143 former political appointees and congressional employees converted to career positions between May 1, 2005, and May 30, 2009.

For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

Proposed new rule gives people with criminal records ‘fair shot’ to join U.S. federal civil service

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Free course on flexible working now available to America’s civil servants

400m people can’t access essential health services, according to report

Mexican health system needs urgent reform, says OECD report

Looking after number one: prioritisation in government

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.


  1. Carmina Juarez-Jaramillo says:

    I have yet to find a political appointee turned career employee who is competent as a leader. When political appointees are not effective as leaders, at least we have a light at the end of the tunnel that we look forward to — a new administration who will relieve the appointee of her/his position. But once burrowed, the resentment from staff skyrockets and morale takes a nose dive.

  2. Jason says:

    Most of the burrowing has been by communistcrats. I am surprised the unions are against it.

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