The federal government has inadequate systems in place to track vacancies of top positions at executive branch agencies, according to a recent Brookings Institution report.

Released in June, the report determined that vacancies of top brass at the Department of Homeland Security “reached crisis proportions” in 2013, in part because several key posts remained unfilled, including secretary, deputy secretary, chief of staff and general counsel.

“These vacancies raised eyebrows in the homeland security community and in Congress,” wrote the report’s author, John Hudak, an institute fellow and managing editor of their blog, FixGov.

There are an estimated 4,000 of these political appointees who are charged with shaping policy and managing departments employing thousands of workers. They are invisible players who sometimes wield a lot of power. They often are not in the public eye or under the intense microscope of the media.

“Because of the central role political appointees play in daily governance, vacancies in these positions can create some real challenges within government,” Mr. Hudak wrote. “In a sense, political appointees are dynamic players within the executive branch, serving dual roles as both political actors and administrative professionals.”

The federal government can ascertain a better sense of vacancies if it had more robust and reliable systems in place to track them, Mr. Hudak concluded. While laws have been passed, rules implemented, and systems developed to track vacancies, the information still tends to be unreliable or outdated.

Among several suggestions, the report says Congress should pass a law that makes it mandatory for agencies to report all top-level position vacancies.

“It should be alarming to those in government, to the public, and particularly to researchers, that agencies like OPM (Office of Personnel Management) and GAO (Government Accountability Office) maintain limited data on who serves in leadership and executive positions and the number of positions to which presidents and agency heads can appoint personnel,” Mr. Hudak wrote.

“This is not the fault of either agency, but a consequence of weak legislative mandates and restrictive budgets that limit innovation.”

The entire report can be downloaded by clicking here.

The Brookings Institution is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

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