GAO Finds 76 Instances of Obama Political Appointees ‘Burrowing In’

Political “burrowing” is a common practice after a change in administrations. GAO has issued its latest report on what it found during the Obama Administration.

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that a total of 76 conversions of political appointees to career positions were completed by agencies during the Obama Administration.

What GAO Found

The study looked at the time period from January 1, 2010 to March 17, 2016. A total of 78 out of 99 requests to convert political appointees were approved by the Office of Personnel Management. 69 of the 78 approved requests were ultimately completed by agencies.

The GAO report also noted that during the time period reviewed, federal agencies completed 7 conversions without approval from OPM. OPM then completed post-appointment reviews for four of these conversions and denied all of them, and agencies took remedies such as re-advertising the positions.

When it was all said and done, agencies managed to convert 76 political appointees to permanent positions, either with or without OPM’s approval.

Table showing the number of successful conversions of political appointees to permanent positions from 2010 to 2016 as outlined in GAO's report

GAO noted in its report that OPM appeared to have followed proper procedures in each of the 78 requests it approved, but GAO did say that for 55 of the 78 appointments, OPM’s case files did not provide enough information for GAO to initially support OPM’s approvals and GAO had to obtain supporting documentation directly from the agencies. Examples GAO provided of the missing OPM documentation included descriptions of candidates’ current or former political appointments and referral lists to the selecting official.

Agencies Involved

According to GAO, 28 agencies converted 76 individuals from political to career positions—with or without OPM approval—during the review period. GAO said that eight agencies accounted for more than half of the political conversions. Among them, Homeland Security had nine, the Department of Justice had eight and the Defense Department converted six.

Pie chart from GAO report showing which federal agencies conducted the political appointment conversions from temporary to permanent positions

Request of GAO Report

The analysis performed by GAO was done at the behest of Senator John Thune (R-SD) in part “to make sure executive branch employees knew they were being watched for improper burrowing.”

Thune said, “GAO determined that one out of every five attempts to move a political appointee into a career position was rejected as improper. Watchdogs need to stay vigilant, and I intend to seek more information about the individuals who may have led improper hiring initiatives.”

Political “Burrowing”

“Burrowing” is a term used to describe the practice in which political appointees are given civil service protection by converting them from temporary to career appointments. It frequently happens after an election when a new administration takes over and the appointees from the previous administration are at risk of losing their jobs.

The practice of “burrowing in” during these times is not a new one. In 2006 for example, GAO issued a report which showed that 144 individuals were converted to career positions from May 1, 2001, through April 30, 2005. And in 1997, GAO released a report showing that 36 such appointments were made between January 1996 and March 1997.

What GAO Recommended

In its latest report, GAO ultimately recommended that OPM ensures all of its documentation is in order since it found some things missing as noted above. GAO also said OPM should establish a policy requiring its staff to verify they reviewed all documentation required by OPM checklists before recommending approval or denial of a political conversion request.

GAO Report on Political “Burrowing” – August 2017

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.