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The Missing Data Behind The Plum Book

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The latest compilation of more than 8,000 federal jobs known as the Plum Book is out, and for the first time it is available in print, digital, and mobile format. There's still something missing, though, with this list that holds interest for the public and Washington, DC, power brokers: the data behind it.

Every four years, the Government Printing Office (GPO) compiles this publication of positions that "may be subject to noncompetitive appointment," as GPO puts it. The book is important because of the information it provides about who is chosen to fill presidential-appointed and other positions. In short, it is the best, most authoritative list of senior positions throughout the executive branch. It originated in the 1950's during the Eisenhower administration, when the Republican Party requested a list of positions the president could fill, according to GPO. The Plum Book has come out every four years just after the presidential election since 1960.

Anyone viewing the book (whatever the format) can look up positions by agency, position title, appointment type, pay, term expiration, and more. It is an incredibly rich source of information that has many possible uses.

There are still barriers to accessing that information, however. The book is available on the GPO website in text and as a PDF, neither of which is an open format that would make sorting or reusing the underlying data a simple task.

Whatever data is used to make the Plum Book should also be published in bulk in an open format to encourage reuse and analysis.

Beyond every four years, however, there is also a clear public interest in understanding where appointees and vacancies exist in the executive branch. The data used to compile the book is presumably kept updated somewhere in a database, and a snapshot of that information is presumably sent to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as well as the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs so they can then work with GPO to publish the book.

Why not make the data set behind the publication available to the public? If that data were available in real time and in a more reusable way, we would have more important analysis like the following: the Project on Government Oversight, for instance, has tracked inspector general vacancies down to the detail of how many days certain positions have been vacant.

The Washington Post used the first Plum Book after President Barack Obama's 2008 election to track appointments by branch.

Any analysis that you can think of revolving around top officials in the executive branch would be empowered by an authoritative, up-to-date list.

Whatever the goals are of publishing the Plum Book, they would be best served by real-time, online disclosure.

Updated: We contacted GPO to find out whether they have plans to make the data available. Gary Somerset, media and public relations manager at GPO, told Sunlight the agency does not have plans to release the database.

We hope they will reconsider. Whoever manages appointments and vacancies in senior executive branch positions should consider the case for real-time disclosure.