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Behind the Scenes: Personnel as Policy in the Biden Administration

President Biden is filling out his administration with some of the most diverse, progressive appointees in history. That is no accident.

Over two years before the 2020 election, progressives started organizing to make sure we were ready to influence this process, no matter who became the Democratic nominee. This effort was driven in part by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s mantra that “personnel is policy” and the growing recognition that the right personnel will have the authority to lower prescription drug prices, modify or forgive student loans, funnel billions of dollars into green energy, and use other powers vested in the executive branch to get things done for the American people.

We knew we needed to do two things—make a case that progressive appointees were a viable choice and then make it easy for the Biden transition team to choose them.

To handle the first task, the Progressive Change Institute (the organization that I cofounded) researched hundreds of individual positions to identify what kind of skills and expertise were needed, why the positions mattered, and what progressives could do in those agencies and offices if they exercised executive power. We published a 90-page report that was shared widely with the progressive community.

With that research in hand, we turned to our second task. We used open-source software to build a custom database of over 9,000 administration positions that could be synced with our list of recommended personnel. Then we reached out to our allies across the movement and asked them to nominate diverse, competent, credentialed experts with a track record of results. Potentially most game-changing, our database allowed groups to endorse each other’s nominations so that the Biden team would see large pockets of support for specific personnel recommendations.

Over 60 groups ended up collaborating in this database, including racial justice groups like Color of Change and Liberation in a Generation; climate leaders like Sunrise and Friends of the Earth; advocacy groups like Indivisible, MoveOn, and People’s Action; think tanks like Demos and the Center for Economic and Policy Research; corporate watchdogs like Public Citizen and Amazon Watch; and agriculture groups ranging from Family Farm Action to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. We also benefited collectively from the participation of regional groups, which nominated talented local experts that might have otherwise been missed by a national effort.

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