The peaceful transfer of power from one presidential administration to another, or from a first to second term, is the cornerstone of American democracy. In this episode of “Profiles in Public Service,” Rachel Klein-Kircher and Loren DeJonge Schulman are joined by three practitioners and experts on presidential transitions who discuss the major challenges the Biden-Harris team had to overcome during the toughest transition in modern U.S. history, how a new administration identifies, recruits and nominates the right people to fill the nearly 4,000 presidential appointee positions who serve across government, and lessons that can be learned by examining the complex process that is fundamental to our democracy.
Our expert guests include:
- Gautam Raghavan, the current director of the White House Office of Presidential Personnel for the Biden Administration and a former presidential team lead for Biden-Harris transition.
- David Marchick, author of, “The Peaceful Transfer of Power: An Oral History of Presidential Transitions,” a joint project between The University of Virginia Press, UVA’s Miller Center, and the Partnership for Public Service, released in October 2022.
- Valerie Smith Boyd, current director of the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition.
- Purchase “The Peaceful Transfer of Power: An Oral History of Presidential Transitions.”
- Read Valerie Smith Boyd’s blog post about the importance of chronicling presidential transitions.
- Learn more about the Center for Presidential Transition.
- Listen to Transition Lab, a podcast from the Partnership for Public Service.
- Learn more about the White House Personnel Office.
- Submit your resume to serve as a political appointee in the Biden-Harris Administration.
- Explore internship opportunities at The Executive Office of the President.
- Apply to be a White House Fellow.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: From the Partnership for Public Service, this is “Profiles in Public Service”—a podcast that shares the stories of the public servants who work on our behalf every day to make our country safer, healthier and more prosperous.
We talk to career public servants, emerging leaders, journalists and more to better understand what it means to be a public servant… the incredible variety of careers possible in government… and how public service impacts all our lives.
I’m Loren DeJonge Schulman,
Rachel Klein-Kircher: And I’m Rachel Klein-Kircher. The peaceful transfer of power from one presidential administration to another, or from a first to second term, is a complex process that is fundamental to our democracy. However, it remains widely misunderstood, even by many experienced leaders working in the government.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: That’s where the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition® comes in. The Center is the premier nonpartisan resource for the presidential candidates and teams who lay the groundwork for a new administration or a president’s second term.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: Today we are welcoming back to “Profiles in Public Service” the Center’s current director, Valerie Smith Boyd, who will join me in a conversation with Dave Marchick, her predecessor.
Dave is the author of the just-released book, “The Peaceful Transfer of Power: An Oral History of Presidential Transitions,” a joint project between The University of Virginia Press, UVA’s Miller Center, and the Partnership for Public Service.
Dave formerly hosted the Partnership’s first podcast, “Transition Lab,” which laid the groundwork for this one-of-a-kind book and featured discussions with former presidential chiefs of staff, transition team leads and other transition experts.
He also served as chief operating officer of the United States Development Finance Corporation during the first year of the Biden administration and currently serves as dean of the Kogod School of Business at American University.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: We will then hear directly from a presidential transition team lead and an incredible public servant, Gautam Raghavan, who currently serves in the Biden administration as the director of the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.
Gautam was one of the first employees hired by the Biden-Harris transition team, where he served as deputy head of presidential appointments. He previously worked in the Obama administration as an advisor and associate director of public engagement, acting as a liaison to the Defense Department, as well as the LGBTQ and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: Today, he will discuss the major challenges his team had to overcome during the toughest transition in modern U.S. history, and how a new administration identifies, recruits and nominates the right people to fill the nearly 4,000 presidential appointee positions who serve across government.
First, let’s turn to Valerie and Dave…
Rachel Klein-Kircher: So, I’m very excited to welcome Valerie and Dave to Profiles in Public Service. I feel like we’re getting the band back together. Valerie, let’s start by first learning a brief background about your experience with presidential transitions, the Partnership for Public Service’s role in transitions, and your current role as the director of the Center for Presidential Transition.
Valerie Smith Boyd: Thanks Rachel, it’s great to be back on the podcast and great to be here with Dave as well. My background is mostly in the federal government. I worked in the last three administrations in a combination of career and political roles and played a very minor role in the 2008 transition at the White House from Bush to Obama, where I helped compile the homeland security information to move between the two teams. And when I arrived at the Center last year, I quickly learned that that was the tip of the iceberg in terms of the amount of activity that needs to happen across agencies and the real depth of tradition in law and the support that the Center for Presidential Transition team provides to incoming teams, the White House and to agencies.
So, it’s been a fantastic learning experience. It’s wonderful to be on the podcast with Dave, who has been so gracious with his insights as we’ve made the transition from him to me as Center director. And, Dave, it’s a pleasure to celebrate your contributions to the Center. Today, we’re talking about the Transition Lab podcast and the book that is released October 11th, “The Peaceful Transfer of Power,” that you based on the podcast. So, let’s start with going back to 2020, what motivated you and the Center team to launch the podcast and then what motivated you to turn it into a book?
Dave Marchick: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me. And let me just start by giving a big shout out to the Partnership for Public Service. It’s an amazing organization. If it didn’t exist, it would have to be invented and the work that the Partnership and the Center does every day, but in particular on presidential transitions, is irreplaceable and had a huge impact on the peaceful transition of power in 2020. Actually, it was Katie Bryan’s idea to do this podcast. She is in the communications office at the Partnership and she said, “Let’s try to do something where we can educate the public about transitions.” We debated it for a while and we thought, gee, nobody’s going to listen. Like, why would people be interested?
And it actually kind of took off, after a while, and Politico said it was their favorite podcast of the cycle. So, our goals were numerous. We wanted to educate the public, and also opinion makers and decision makers, on the importance of presidential transitions, the importance of a smooth transition of power, and the importance of the Partnership’s key messages, which were start early, invest, invest, invest, and work with career officials across the government to enable a smooth transition of power. We wanted to add to the significant knowledge base about presidential transitions, which the Partnership really is the preeminent center of excellence.
So, the Partnership has wonderful documents and historical information on transitions, and we wanted this to contribute to that body of work. And then we wanted to highlight the central role of the Partnership. So, it really was a fantastic experience and the podcast kind of took off, so it was fun as well. Then the idea came up about should we turn this into a book? Again, we developed this huge knowledge set from the interviews, really studying every modern transition since Jimmy Carter, all the way up through the Biden Transition, as well as the historic transitions like Buchanan to Lincoln and Hoover to Roosevelt and certain aspects of transitions, including personnel and policy. And so, we went to the University of Virginia because they have the Miller Center, which is the center of excellence for oral history of the presidency, and they were intrigued by the idea and they agreed to publish it. So the book, I think, will hopefully contribute to the Partnership’s strong knowledge base on presidential transitions. It highlights lessons learned, and provides recommendations for the future, and I think it will be a great place for folks interested in presidential transitions to learn the history, learn the art and learn what can be done better.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: Dave, I’m really glad you mentioned that this was a fun endeavor because when I think back through all of your podcast episodes and the book itself, there is just so much there about the different administrations, the history, the people involved, all the different responsibilities and the things having to do with transition. So, was there anything that really took you by surprise, either from working on the podcast or writing the book about this whole process?
Dave Marchick: That’s a great question. You know, one of the people that I interviewed twice and that also wrote the forward to the book was Ken Burns, the great historian. And he quotes Mark Twain in saying that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” And there’s certainly rhymes in the history of presidential transitions. So, for example, some of the mistakes: the Carter Transition focused heavily on the cabinet at the expense of White House staff. Clinton did the same. And what we at the Partnership tried to encourage candidates to pursue is focus on the White House staff first and then the cabinet.
The importance of starting early. So, President Bush started his transition very early, as did candidate Biden, and that helped both of them have effective transitions, but also it helped them overcome the impact of a shortened transition. President Bush only had 35 days instead of 77 or 78 days, and President Biden obviously had a shorter transition because the delay in the ascertainment and also because of the tension that was created by President Trump’s unwillingness to accept the results of the election.
A few other things, you know, where there’s rhyming: individuals matter. A single individual can have a huge impact. I’ll give you a couple examples. Josh Bolten in the outgoing Bush administration changed the art and practice of presidential transitions. What he invented, what he created was codified into law in the Presidential Transitions Improvements Act, and also the Ted Kaufman Act of 2015, which the Partnership had a huge impact in securing adoption in the Congress. Chris Liddell in the outgoing Trump administration had a very, very positive impact of creating order in a sea of chaos. And then if you look at the Biden Transition, people like Ted Kaufman, Jeff Zients, and Yohannes Abraham had a huge impact on shaping the transition.
They started early and they anticipated a lot of the problems that would be created through the process and that helped the Biden Transition team get off to a quick start, and also helped President Biden enter office with wind behind his back instead of against his front.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: And I appreciate that you are giving examples from both sides of the aisle, which is really the intent of having this whole peaceful transfer and this process. And you do describe in your book as offering every citizen investing in safeguarding our democracy accessible and concentrated insights that will help future transitions run better, faster and more smoothly.
So, Valerie, as one of these direct stakeholders in doing this work, in your role working closely with transition leaders, is there a major takeaway for you or lesson learned from “The Peaceful Transfer of Power” that is going to help the Center’s next transition cycle in 2024?
Valerie Smith Boyd: I think Dave previewed one of them in his previous remarks that one of the most important lessons in the book is that people matter, just as in every other endeavor. As Dave said, individuals can make a big difference and on a broad scale in a transition team, they need people who understand the president and his priorities, his or her priorities. They need people who have subject matter expertise, and they need to be collaborative and most importantly, focused on the greater good, on achieving important things for the public. And there’s a chapter with Liza Wright and Jonathan McBride from presidential personnel, again, working collaboratively across both sides of the aisle, who talk about the challenges for getting a president’s team in place.
And just going back to the system as it exists, there are 4,000 political appointees that need to turn over at the beginning of each administration. Around 1,200 of them need to be confirmed by the Senate and it’s a mathematics problem to vet and clear enough people on the pathway to nomination and then to ask the Senate to prioritize them, among all the other business that it needs to do. So, it’s a great challenge to get leaders in place and find the right people that represent the president and are ready to move quickly and get things done.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: It’s a Herculean task for sure. And we’re all just grateful to the two of you for the work that you’re bringing to make it perhaps a bit less of a Herculean task. And Valerie, I’ll turn it back to you to ask Dave our final question.
Valerie Smith Boyd: So, as you said, Dave, one of the goals of the book is to bring greater understanding to the transition process and you’ve called it, “The most delicate and hazardous period in the entire political cycle.” What key lessons do you hope the general public will come away with after reading your book?
Dave Marchick: Well, it’s a good question that changes with a benefit of time. When we started this process in 2020, we were just hoping to get people interested in the subject of presidential transitions. It was not on the front pages. We wanted to educate the American public, the Congress and others about the importance of a smooth transition of power and doing transitions better, faster and more effectively.
I think because of the dynamics of the 2020 election and transition, we no longer need to convince people that presidential transitions are important. We saw the challenges and threats to the bedrock of our democracy in 2020. So the lessons learned, I think, are really important. And it’s the bipartisanship and nonpartisan nature of the smooth transition of power. It’s the importance of speed. So, Valerie highlighted the difficulty of getting people in their seats in the government. You know, President Biden, despite having a very, very effective transition team, because of a variety of reasons – January 6th, the Georgia elections, some of the chaos – he only had one cabinet officer start on Inauguration Day, Avril Haines, who was at the director of National Intelligence. President Obama and President Bush had half their cabinet, half the 15 statutory cabin officers, in their seats on January 20th.
And so, we need to do better. We need to move faster, and Congress, I think, still can improve the transition process by doing what the Partnership has said is so important: reducing the number of Senate confirmed positions, speeding up the process in enabling a new president to get his or her team in place more quickly, more efficiently to serve the American public.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: And this final point that you raised, Dave, you know a team can be as prepared as they want to be, but it’s not all in their hands. There are other stakeholders that have a piece of this process. So once again, we just want to thank you and Valerie so much for coming back to the podcast, shedding light on what is such a critical piece of our democracy, and thank you for sharing all the wisdom that you’ve gained over this time.
Dave Marchick: Thanks for having me. Nice to be with Valerie.
Valerie Smith Boyd: Thanks Rachel. So good to see you, Dave.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Now we will hear from today’s public servant, Gautam Raghavan…Gautam, I was looking at your bio and remembered again that you have worked just about everywhere in government. You were in the Obama White House in a number of roles. You’ve worked the Department of Defense, you are currently now in the Biden administration and you’ve worked on the Hill, and I have to ask, given this incredible variety of experiences, what motivated you to enter a career in public service?
Gautam Raghavan: Thanks for the question. For me, it really comes down to the summer of 2003. I was interning here in Washington, D.C. I spent a summer here before and really liked the city and the vibe and the passion, and was interning here, of all places very randomly, at PBS. And two things were happening at the same time in my life.
One was that I was in the process of coming out as a gay man and the second thing was George Bush was campaigning against marriage equality. And so for me, to be in this city at that moment in time, where I was sort of coming into myself as a person and the political landscape was sort of, well, one, incredibly divisive, but I felt like my future and my rights and my ability to get married one day were at risk. The way I sort of talk about it is that it made the personal very political. My coming out felt very political. So, that for me was really what triggered a renewed interest in activism, campaigns, politics, government, because it sort of made viscerally clear for me what was at stake for me as a person.
So that’s really what got me started. You know, I volunteered on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and then after I graduated, I knew I wanted to be in D.C. and I wanted to be a part of changing the world. And so that’s how I ended up in the city and it’s been 18 years.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: I love that connection to the personal there because there’s a lot of people who get involved in politics and policy because they are passionate about a particular issue and I think sometimes, as our careers go on, it’s easy to lose that personal connection of like, I’m not just changing the world, which is an awesome goal to have, but I’m changing the world for myself, for my family, for a thing that matters to me as an individual. I’m creating the space for me to be able to succeed, be my own person, love the people I want, do the things I need to do. And politics and policy are what part of what make that happen.
So, I love that because so many people assume politics is all about something a little more tawdry, and this is a much more kind of self-actualized and incredibly important version of that.
Gautam Raghavan: Yeah, I agree, and President Biden says this all the time, every time he says this, I think “You’re still saying this, Mr. President?” which is that he always says, “Today I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been about the future of this country.” And I think for me, I agree, because I feel like I’ve seen over the last, you know, two decades in D.C. and politics, in campaigns and government what change looks like, right? That we can actually make these things happen. There’s still a lot of work to do, but like, I don’t know. I feel very optimistic about all that.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: I appreciate leading in on a note of optimism because let’s talk about presidential transition. And what boggles my mind is that you and your team are getting into this enormous endeavor, but you don’t know what it’s going to come to because you don’t yet know if your team is going to win.
So, what is that like to be part of a presidential transition team from the very beginning? How do you prepare when you don’t know the outcome of the election?
Gautam Raghavan: Yeah, as you said, it is sort of a surreal experience. I remember getting a call from Yohannes Abraham who ran the transition. This was in, I think around April or May of 2020, saying, “Hey, this is the thing that I’m going to be doing. Would you be interested in working with me?” And I said, of course. I’ve worked with Yohannes before, thought the world of him, but it is so critical to get this right because that transition of power from administration to administration, the sort of forethought and planning around policy and people and operations and getting it all right for day one, is incredibly important to make sure that the next president is up and running as soon as possible.
So, sort of philosophically, I understood the importance of a transition and making sure it was, you know, resourced and well-equipped and smart and thoughtful. But when I got into it, I mean, man, it is absolutely surreal because you’re right; you’re building this entire enterprise and you don’t know if it’s even going to do anything. And at that point, the gold standard was actually Mitt Romney’s transition; it was by all accounts a very well-organized transition. Secretary Clinton’s transition, again, really robust and thoughtful they’d done a lot of work and neither of them came to fruition. They didn’t actually get to do the thing that they were planning for.
So, that’s always the back of your head, right? Like, I could be doing all this work, I could be leaving my job or taking a leave of absence to go do something that may not actually pan out. But you have to do it because if you don’t, then you’re stuck with that. What is it that 78 days or so, between Election Day and Inauguration Day, and you can’t possibly do the level of planning you need in that period of time, especially when you’re in the middle of COVID.
You know, you’ve got a climate crisis, you’ve got an economic crisis, you’ve got a racial justice crisis. There’s all these things that the president was talking about and campaigning on. And I would also just add especially for this president, this moment in time, running a campaign on, you know, restoring faith and integrity in competence to government. So that raises the stakes even further for what a transition has to deliver on.
So, yeah, it was crazy. Just to answer your question.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: I actually think transition is an incredible moment of optimism for the country. It is an act of faith, that transition from one administration to the other. We are going to hand off the leader of the free world and 4,000 other individuals who are helping run incredibly sensitive, challenging issues in the country.
They’re going to step down, a new team is going to step up, and it’s an act of faith and optimism that it’s going to continue working effectively. So, I actually think transitions are incredibly positive. But that being said, it’s a miracle sometimes that it works. This particular transition had major challenges, some that we had not experienced before as a country.
Can you tell us about some of those? Some of them were, you know, pandemic related as we were all experiencing, but there’s obviously some that were unique to 2020 that I would love to hear how you all experienced that.
Gautam Raghavan: Yeah, well, you know, I think two of the obvious challenges that we faced were the delayed ascertainment right, which everyone knows about, that did set us back and it set back the ability of the teams that we sent into the agencies to get good information and prepare for the incoming administration. So that was a challenge.
Of course, you know, up until January 5th or 6th, we had no idea who was going to control the Senate. So, you’re preparing nominations and appointments, not knowing if and when folks will get confirmed, so that was absolutely a challenge. But the obvious one is COVID, right? We were operating in a completely remote landscape. There was a transition office, but very few of us ever went in. And there’s that uncertainty about how is the public health guidance going to shift? What are the trend lines looking like? It was pretty bad at one point and then it got better and then it was getting bad again.
You just don’t know what that’s going to look like. But one of the interesting consequences of working in that completely remote landscape is it actually gave us way more ability to tap into talent for the transition, because people didn’t have to up and move to Washington, D.C. to be a part of the transition team just for a couple of months. Right? That’s a lot to do to uproot your life or your family to go relocate for a couple months. So it meant that we had this amazing team, amazing talent that was all over the country, you know. For our work specifically in personnel, it gave us the opportunity to bring on several hundred volunteer interviewers who could help us talk to candidates during this entire process, and be robust and thoughtful about what questions we were asking, getting the right people ready to hire on day one. So, there was some opportunity there, but it was unlike any past transition for all the reasons I just described.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: So you mentioned the Romney transition planning in 2012 as is seen as often as a gold standard, the Secretary Clinton transition in 2016. It’s always amazing to me that for all that we’ve been doing this for, a couple of centuries as a country, there is still a lot to learn and a lot to improve in this space. And I would love your views on what needs to happen to make future transitions better or maybe easier? I don’t know what the goal may be, but like there’s obviously still much to learn in this space.
Gautam Raghavan: Yeah. Well first of all, I just have to give you guys and the Partnership for Public Service a lot of credit because we absorbed ourselves in all the materials that the Center for Presidential Transition had put together over years, right? I remember the very first thing I did was read through the transition guide, look at all the charts. I think we got our hands on the Romney transition book and read that cover to cover because that’s the best way to start. What did past transitions do? What did they learn? What went right, what went wrong? You know, I think we did a lot right on our transition. I think it was, I mean obviously I’m biased, but I think it was the most successful transition in history and our ability to, you know, early in the first day or first week of the administration, have a thousand appointees ready to go and get to work and support the president and senior leaders across the administration. It’s pretty remarkable.
You know, backing up from that, that means you’re vetting them, you’re interviewing them, you’re finding the talent all over the country and getting people into the mix. So, you really can’t start too early, right? I understand that future transitions or campaigns may think, oh, it’s like it’s measuring the drapes, but these are the most important drapes to measure, right? So you really can’t start too early finding candidates, thinking about what you want, what you want the administration to look like, you know, really committing early on to some key principles. For President Biden and for the transition leadership, we knew we wanted to build, as he has said, an administration that looks like America.
We knew we wanted the most talented, ethically sound candidates, you know, people who are really going to commit to government and for all the right reasons and not have conflicts of interest or other issues. So, it’s a lot of work to do to be able to get ready not just for the first day, but the first hundred days and then the first year. And so I think early investments, robust investments, I mean, the amount of money that it takes to fund this kind of work, is important. And that, you know, I think the Presidential Transition Act, for us in the work we do in personnel is also important, right? Because it provides funding for training and getting people ready to serve in the first year. So all that is incredibly important.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: So you talked very broadly, here’s all the things we have to do, finding the people, vetting the people. And I love this is what America looks like and this is what we would like our administration to look like. So how do you actually do it? Like if you can give it a very specific example, when you think about finding the right people, recruiting them, nominating them, there’s 4,000 presidential appointee positions as Loren mentioned. How do you actually go about this endeavor?
Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, it starts by sort of mapping out what does the universe look like, right? So, very early in the summer of 2020, we looked at the previous Plum Books, and for folks who aren’t familiar, the Plum Book is basically every four years. You know, that point in time snapshot of what political positions exist in any given administration.
So we sort of mapped out, here’s what Obama, you know, 2012, 2016. Here’s what – we actually didn’t have Trump 2020 [Plum Book] until very late – but here’s basically the universe we’re playing with various departments and agencies. And then you think about, okay, well how’s that? How does that change today, right? Where do we need to increase a political footprint, where can it be decreased to mirror the president’s priorities and make sure we have people ready to implement on day one? So, we were looking at things like, obviously we need more positions focused on COVID response, but the health and the economic response to the pandemic, you know, obviously more than pretty much any administration.
We wanted more folks working on climate, on delivery of services for regular Americans across the country. So, you sort of map it out. Then you know what you’re working with as a starting point, and then you got to prioritize and figure out, okay, we can’t fill all 4,000 on day one.
Which positions are the most critical, the most senior level positions? Especially where knowing that it’s going to take some time to get our senior nominees confirmed by the Senate, who are the folks who on day one are ready to be acting in those jobs, so that it’s not just the secretary and then a bunch of assistants at an agency? You’d need that senior most level of leaders and managers ready to go on day one as well.
And then you got to go find people. And we knew that there would be a natural interest, especially after Election Day. You know, knock on wood, if we won, that there would be a huge influx of talent. But in advance of that, you know, if you have a hundred people on transition, each of them can easily generate 50 to a hundred names of people who they know and can vouch for either from prior government service or other work that they’ve done. So, we were just in intake mode for months, right. Just give us your names, give us your recommendations. Obviously members of Congress had great recommendations, stakeholder groups, professional associations, and that’s how you build that database, which now we have well over a hundred thousand resumes in our database, and it’s constantly growing. I mean, we’re constantly finding people who apply on WhiteHouse.gov and then we hire them, right? Which is also amazing that that’s a way into the administration, is just by going and raising your hand and saying, I want to serve as well.
So then you got to find them. You got to obviously interview them. So we have, like I said, the most robust interview process of any past transition and now in the administration, we have a really robust interview process to make sure we’re really thinking about who’s out there, what makes them qualified, what compels them to serve at this moment in time?
Then you got to vet them. And vetting is, you know, a huge, it’s a Herculean challenge. The amount of hours we put into vetting candidates is significant, but you do it for good reason, right? To make sure you’re getting not just the most talented people, but people who aren’t going to have conflicts of interest or problems, especially if you think about Senate confirmation.
And then you got to get them in their seats. And that last piece in a pandemic is not easy. Because when you think about the challenge of, on day one, some of these agencies aren’t even fully open. How are you going to get people their laptop and their badge and their ability to get on email?
I mean, looking back, it’s one of those things where you realize, oh that really was incredibly hard, how did we possibly succeed? But you know, you get good people, and you do a lot of planning and as I said, you start early and it is actually very doable.
I really appreciate how specific you got. I mean, that was exactly what we wanted for our listeners to really understand what goes on because not everybody is privy to this information and this is what you and your team, you know, lived every day.
Another question that I’d love to know, because this is something that at the Partnership, we’re really trying to help federal government bring on more diverse talent and diverse in so many ways. So how did you and your team approach that element specifically to ensure that you were bringing in a diverse appointee base?
Yeah. We talk about this often. It is a key part of our approach on the transition and now in PPO. And look everyone agrees, diversity – well I shouldn’t say everyone – most people agree diversity and inclusion are important. But what comes next in the sentence is that it’s also really hard to do and to do right because it requires a lot of intentionality and being proactive. If you just sort of leave things to their own devices, you’re not going to get a diverse group of people applying for positions. So, I think that there’s a couple of specifics I would give you.
One is recruitment. We have a whole part of our team that is dedicated to talking to stakeholder groups, organizations all over the country, talking to, you know, not just members of Congress, but other elected officials, going to schools and universities.
We’ve just re-doubled our efforts with community colleges to find talent that may not know that this is even a possibility for them, right? People might not know that, oh, that’s the thing I can go do. So recruitment is critical. A second part of this is we use data and analytics at every step of our process to understand where are we losing or gaining talent? Is there any bias in our process, which may be unconscious, like maybe we don’t know that there’s something about the way we’re doing our work that has a chilling effect on some communities or advantages other people. And so we look at data by every demographic, you know, race, gender, LGBTQ, disability, veteran, immigrant status at every step of our process to understand, where are we losing folks in the system?
Then the last thing I will say is this is sort of critical for when you’re deciding how to fill a position. We just ask everyone to really sort of test their assumptions about what makes someone qualified for a job. Just because a position has always been filled a certain way in the past, does it need to be the same kind of person today? Have our needs changed? Is there some bias baked into the idea that you have to have a PhD and a certain thing to do this job? You know, maybe you do, because it’s highly technical. But maybe we could open the doors a little bit and see who else is out there who might be a qualified candidate for that job. So that’s a couple of the ways in which we approach building the most diverse administration in history and I think it’s paid off so far.
Loren DeJonge Schulman:
So you are something of a rarity in that you were a day one employee of the transition team, a day one or very early employee of the Biden administration coming in on or after January 20th and, you know, you were helping support or managing personnel issues that whole way, but the work I would imagine in doing this in the transition team has a different tenor once you actually start in government as part of governance.
So, I’m curious about how that transition impacted the way that you see your job today. Did it change how you see your job in any way? Did you take key lessons from that incredible experience in transition into your time in the White House now?
Well, I think it’s because we did a lot of this work on transition that it set us up really nicely to come into PPO because we had processes, you know, obviously a database. We ported over that whole database of candidates from transition into our database here. So, we were really set up from the beginning to hit the ground running in a number of different ways.
For me personally, I feel very invested in what we have built and what we’ve also had to change over time, right? Because transition is different from the first hundred days, it’s different from where we are today. It’ll be different from what PPO and personnel looks like tomorrow. So it’s constantly evolving.
I think that’s actually exciting. You know, one of the biggest changes obviously is that on transition, we were building entire teams in advance of their senior leadership being in place. And that’s sort of a strategic question that a transition has to decide, right? Are we going to wait for the secretary and then the deputy secretary and the under [secretaries] and assistant secretaries to be confirmed for them to hire their teams? Or are we going to build a team in advance of that? And we made the decision that we have to build those teams like necessarily. You need people to do the work on day one, and we didn’t know how long it was going to take to get folks confirmed.
And if you, you know, one of the things that we learned was if you look for people who are obviously highly capable and talented, but also humble and collegial and good team workers, they can be adaptable to whatever, however those teams develop. So, the biggest change is now we are working closely with agencies and departments across the administration. So they have their own pools of talent that they want to draw from as well. You know, I think there’s always a healthy back-and-forth in conversation between what we do in PPO and with agencies and departments to make sure we’re finding the best talent and sort of getting aligned on the types of people we want for various jobs. So that’s one of the biggest changes. But, you know, I would say a lot of what we do today is still based on the structure and the principles that we set on the transition.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: So Gautam, you’re speaking to our hearts when you mentioned community colleges and other places where you’re talking to folks who may not realize what opportunities there are to serve federal government. So what advice do you have for someone who’s interested in public service, whether as a political appointee or a career public servant?
Gautam Raghavan: It’s a great question and thank you for asking that because we’re, first of all, we’re always looking for talent. I had someone say the other day, oh aren’t you guys done? I had explain to her like we’re never done. And then I feel like I just want everyone to sit still, but just when you get going, then people move around. They move up, they get promoted, you know? They want to try different things and that’s all good and healthy, just to be very clear. But it means that there’s always opportunity. Every single year of this administration, we’re going to be recruiting and hiring people.
So the first and most important thing to do is actually apply. So go to WhiteHouse.Gov, scroll to the bottom, fill out the application, get your resume into our system. Every single week when we sit down with our teams and make decisions on hiring, there’s always somebody who just showed up in the database. They didn’t come in through a referral or, you know, someone important. Like they literally just said, I want to serve. And we’re able to search resumes for keywords and skill sets. And that’s an amazing thing that we’re able to find regular Americans who say, “Hey, like, you know, put me in.” So that’s one thing. Apply.
The second thing is, I think the more research you can do about what federal government service is in advance, the better. I know you guys, the Partnership for Public Service, you have a lot of great resources about things to think about at every level, at the most senior level, thinking about, you know, what does it mean for a security clearance, for a Senate confirmation process, for your finances, right?
Because especially folks coming from the private sector may be taking a pay cut to do this kind of work, which obviously, that’s a part of public service, unfortunately. But even at the most junior levels, think about, you know, what does the work actually look like? You know, look at the Plum Book. I would scour LinkedIn, find people who’ve had these jobs before, look at their profiles and say, ‘You know, what about that might be similar to what I’ve done and what I might be interested in doing?’ I think for every appointee, the most important question is why do you want to do this? Right? It is not just a regular job, it is about serving the president and the vice president and serving in this administration at this moment in time.
So I think the more folks can come prepared to answer the question about what is it that compels them to serve, the better. Because that’s what we’re looking for: people who really have a fire for public service and are committed to this president’s agenda. If you just look at some of the great successes that the president has had, it also points to the incredible opportunity we have over the next year to go implement some of this work, right? So when we’re thinking about the Infrastructure Law or the CHIPS Act, or about the Inflation Reduction Act, there is incredible opportunity here for government to move money, help people, address the climate crisis.
And that’s incredibly exciting and I hope reminds people of all the reasons why the president ran in the first place, which is to help people restore competence in government. It’s just a really amazing opportunity that lies ahead of us. So, apply, apply, apply, and we look forward to hiring you.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Well Gautam, you have one of the most exciting jobs, I think, in the federal government, being able to match the incredible talent and excitement and passion of Americans with the amazing opportunity that comes with public service and serving in an administration that is really valuing public service at the same time. Before we close out, any final words, any final advice or insights you want to share?
Gautam Raghavan: Well, I can’t get away without saying what we say every single day here in PPO, which is that people are policy. And we firmly believe that. That if we have people who represent all of America in these agencies and departments and at the White House, we’ll get outcomes that are good for all Americans.
And so, I’ve seen it firsthand. You know, going back to where we started in my life, seeing the changes around LGBTQ equality, where so many of those changes were possible because members of my community were a part of the decision making. And so, for whatever community you belong to, if you are looking for an opportunity to make a difference and to change the world, this is a way to do it. And that’s why we say people are policy. We really believe it. And I can’t think of a better way to describe the work that we do here in the Presidential Personnel Office.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Awesome closing. Thank you so much for your time. This has been a great conversation.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: Thank you!
Gautam Raghavan: Thank you both.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Rachel, I learned so much from our conversation with Gautam, but I think the thing that is going to stick with me for a long time is that they really do take resumes that people submit online on their website and they hire from that. And I both am astounded by that because they know they’ve gotten hundreds of thousands.
But also it’s such an incredible connection to the public. Like we really do want to hear from anyone who wants to serve in government. And as soon as he said that, I was like, Oh my gosh, you’ve made it so much easier for us to pitch this kind of service that you are truly hiring from the entire public who might be interested.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: I’m so glad you said this was new for you because it was new for me and I’ve already told, I don’t know how many people, like that was astounding to me. And he is like, no it really does work. And it makes sense because as their needs are evolving, and you’re getting new information, new resumes every day. You know, how great is that? And Loren, I had mentioned to Gautam before we were recording, I volunteered in that Office of Presidential Personnel back in the day when there were fax machines. And I had the job one day of faxing resumes during an administration in the nineties. So very different times.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: That’s incredible. And honestly, I hate to break it to you. They probably do still have fax machines. I know some of the White House does.
But it was such a great conversation because he was able to talk through how hard they worked to be able to get people in on day one during the transition and how much effort that requires. It’s not just a matter of like grabbing a couple of folks and like they’ve got to go through vetting, they’ve got to do security clearance, like got to be the right people in the right place. And then same thing moving into the administration. Transition continues to be just an amazing moment that it actually works. That we are saying 4,000 people, you’re all out one day and then as many people as we can, in this case, a thousand in the case of Biden administration, you come in the next day and it also somehow functions peacefully, responsibly. I’m sure there’s a lot of things going on in the background, but it’s an incredible system.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: And the fact that they did this during COVID, which in and of itself has so many more challenges, but as Gautam described, there was additional opportunity because you could have access to staff that may not have been able to relocate to Washington, D.C. and here it was this opportunity to work virtually from anywhere. And so they had more access to more people and their network expanded. And so to me, that was really another silver lining moment of this pandemic.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: They were able to bring talent on board for the administration too, who probably would never have been considered. I know current appointees or recent appointees who were at the beginning of the administration living in Puerto Rico, in New York City and Germany, who eventually made their way to DC. But were able to do their job incredibly effectively and responsibly in that interim period where most of us were working remotely then. So, it just opened the door, and I hope they leave it open, for so much opportunity there.
I say it all the time myself, so I’m so happy that they say it too, that people are policy, that bringing in the right people with the values and interests and priorities to reflect the potential of government is so important and that Joe Biden in his administration has prioritized that. I know many of his predecessors have as well.
But this is a role to be taken as seriously as possible. And one of the most important ones I think happening in government are matching these really sensitive and really huge responsibilities to individuals who are willing to take them on.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: And for me it was so valuable to hear this is the actual process. This is what we do. And also, you know, throughout selecting candidates, once they were in position, but also all of the work leading up to it, this idea that the gold standard were two campaign teams who weren’t even elected into office, that to me was also pretty stunning. You have to sign up to do all of this work, not even knowing if it’s going to see the light of day. That is dedication and commitment.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: That links to a point that I made during the interview. I find transitions to be just so positive and optimistic and such an amazing representation of American democracy, that we think it’s worth putting all of this work into government that may not ever happen. And we think it’s worth putting all this work into holding hands carefully across administrations, even amongst political rivals. And that is both inspiring, a little bit terrifying that we continue to make it happen, but just an incredibly hopeful perspective to have, and one that I think reflects really well on all of our colleagues who’ve worked so hard on transition but is also a great opportunity for people to continue to improve on, as we have in the past.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: And it’s such a generous process if you think about it. For the Clinton and Romney campaigns, they were not ultimately successful, but their good work was still used. So, it was not for naught as I would say.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Absolutely. Well, we’ve had such an opportunity to talk with different leaders who’ve had different angles on transition before, so it’s nice to be able to have this episode, hearing these different perspectives and continuing to tell the story of this really amazing moment in American politics.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: No, I agree. I really enjoyed it.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Thanks, Rachel.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: So that’s our show, thanks so much for listening! If you haven’t already, please follow or subscribe to “Profiles in Public Service” wherever you get your podcasts.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: You can also check this episode’s show notes to learn more about today’s topic and be sure to follow the Partnership for Public Service on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram to find out about future episodes!
Loren DeJonge Schulman: “Profiles in Public Service” is created by the Partnership for Public Service.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: Our writer and producer is Abigail Alpern Fisch.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Our script supervisor is Barry Goldberg.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: And our executive producer is Jordan LaPier.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: See you next time!