Conservatives Must Solve Their Personnel Problem Before the Next Presidency | Opinion

The core of any operation is its people. That's true for the startup striving to become a Fortune 500, the humanitarian cause working for solutions to a crisis, and the political movement seeking to have its members elected into public office. Good intentions are not enough—the makeup and quality of the team will determine its success or failure.

This truth is best expressed in a longstanding Republican axiom that stretches back to the Reagan administration: "personnel is policy." The Trump presidency proved this beyond a shadow of a doubt. After the 2016 election, poor early personnel choices plagued the administration, a fact which President Donald Trump himself acknowledged and tried to counteract by firing or reshuffling White House staff on multiple occasions. But many conservatives now agree his attempts to course correct were sometimes too little, too late. Often, the problem wasn't mere mistaken assessments or bad decision-making: it was the lack of good replacements available.

Republicans can be accused of having a weak bench.

I had a front-row seat to the Trump team's personnel snafus as a primary campaign staffer for candidate Trump, then serving on his transition team, then on the Department of Defense beachhead team, and finally joining the Pentagon's White House Liaison Office. In these roles, I watched President Trump and his advisers hire active opponents of his national security and foreign policy agenda—often camouflaged—for coveted and key roles in the administration. There was no shortage of eager applicants aiming to implement their own policy objectives in conflict with the American people's choice for chief executive.

The Trump administration's staffing shortage was a problem for our agenda. Our opponents knew it and took advantage of it.

White House
The White House is seen in Washington, DC, on February 7, 2023. - US President Joe Biden is expected to deliver his State of the Union address at the US Capitol tonight. Mandel NGAN / AFP/Getty Images

There are few things more disappointing than interviewing someone with a great resume who seems fired up for the cause, who then turns out to be bent on undermining the president's agenda, or simply incompetent, and has to be fired. Time is too short for an administration to waste on self-sabotage and human resources debacles. Seeking to avoid such problems in the future, conservative organizations have now become laser-focused on the staffing challenge.

Some of these efforts are being led by people who sounded an early alarm about the Trump administration's staffing problem—including myself. I began at the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO) just as the president was implementing a personnel overhaul. John McEntee was appointed head of PPO to conduct a thorough review of all presidential appointees—roughly 4,000 people. My job under McEntee was similar to what I had done at the Defense Department: conducting interviews to vet and hire new appointees and to replace those who warranted dismissal. With the president's new direction, PPO was finally exercising its critical function of quality control—so the will of the people, and the agenda they voted for, was being implemented.

PPO's mission is not an easy one, but it is vital. After several Cabinet-level resignations and countless leaks aimed at damaging the president and hampering his administration, serious surgery was required to restore discipline and order to the executive branch. The situation should have been addressed long ago.

Many observers of the political process think that staffing a new presidential administration is an exercise in cronyism, favor-trading, and power. But it should be an exercise in popular sovereignty: the recruiting and vetting process for the executive branch should be guided by the people's will, expressed as an electoral choice. My organization, the Association of Republican Presidential Appointees, in its new report, offers specific benchmarks for defining a "qualified" presidential appointee—not just their expertise, but their ability to do the job and solve problems, their judgement and moral character, and their demonstrated alignment with the president-elect's agenda and proven willingness to fight for that agenda. These qualifications must become mandatory through the next conservative administration's PPO.

In the future, conservatives can avoid the critical staffing failures of the past with careful forethought. Groups dedicated to vetting prospective federal employees for the next administration play a vital role—but so do the voters themselves. Conservatives must hold their candidates' feet to the fire and insist they have a plan to root out entrenched bureaucrats opposed to the people's agenda and will enact a staffing process to replace them. No Republican should receive the people's support unless flanked by a strong and tough team with a plan to turn elections into real policy change.

Troup Hemenway is the President of Personnel Policy Operations and a founder of the Association of Republican Presidential Appointees.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.