President Donald Trump bragged on Fox News in February that it was a good thing he was leaving vacant “hundreds and hundreds of jobs” in the government. “A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint,” the president said, “because they’re unnecessary to have.”
The problem is the federal government had roughly 2,633,000 civilian employees in 2014, according to the Office of Personnel Management. There are so many federal workers that the OPM is still calculating the official number for the past two years. No president can run a government that vast with tweets and executive orders.
Mr. Trump needs allies in key positions if he wants to bend the bureaucracy in the direction of his policies. A president can fill about 4,000 posts in the federal bureaucracy, roughly a quarter of which require Senate approval. Leaving hundreds of offices vacant would save only negligible amounts on salaries, and it would squander billions on unneeded government programs.
He needs his people in every nook and cranny to bring about change. Without their leadership, career civil servants will default to inaction. Even at the departments where careerists might be inclined to support Mr. Trump’s agenda—Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security and Treasury—they won’t move without specific direction from under, assistant and deputy secretaries.
The president’s agenda will face even tougher sledding if he leaves openings in hostile bureaucracies like the Environmental Protection Agency and Labor and Education departments. He needs to put his 4,000 appointees in place to lead the other 2.6 million federal workers in implementing his vision.
These appointees can help identify waste, fraud, abuse and ineffective programs in the bureaucracies where they work. They are critical to getting their departments’ regulatory functions executed properly. They are vital to selling Mr. Trump’s legislative initiatives to Congress and the public.
Leaving vacancies invites potentially embarrassing problems. If something goes wrong, the bureaucracy could blame the absence of leadership, leaving President Trump to take the heat. Cabinet secretaries could become overwhelmed trying to manage their massive departments with only a handful of personal aides. That leads to mistakes, burnout and unnecessary turnover.
It takes time for a new administration to get organized, and even more to get agencies going in the right direction. But this White House has been staffing the government at a snail’s pace. To make his term the most successful it can be, Mr. Trump should make filling key jobs a priority, built into his daily duties.
The White House chief of staff should triage the empty billets and identify the ones to fill immediately. To expedite the process, he should call regular personnel meetings with the major West Wing players. If they don’t show up for a meeting, they forfeit the right to comment on that day’s slots. Otherwise the appointments will be mired by internecine warfare.
The president should mark regular time on his schedule to discuss personnel and conduct interviews for high-profile positions. The president’s itinerary is already packed, but adding these tasks would send a clear message about their importance. These meetings can be canceled if necessary, but having something on his calendar tends to force action.
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The president should also think about outsourcing part of some personnel decisions. He’s been reluctant to do that, and aides have reportedly spiked candidates who criticized him during the campaign. But outsourcing went extremely well with his Supreme Court pick. Perhaps he should grant his cabinet secretaries leeway to recommend several qualified possibilities for certain posts, leaving the president to decide if they’re acceptable.
Mr. Trump developed a company worth billions with a small cadre of longtime aides and family members, which is impressive. But negotiating branding agreements, purchasing buildings, developing hotels, building golf courses—even hosting a reality television show—is not comparable to the pressure and pace of overseeing the U.S. government.
The president sits atop a government with a $4 trillion budget, leading a country with an $18.6 trillion economy and 324 million people. Surely Mr. Trump can find 4,000 qualified stalwarts among them to help him before his first year in office ends. The fate of his presidency may depend upon it.