Political Appointees Bared To Journos in Digital "Plum Book"

January 16, 2013

You know that politically appointed press secretary who worked on the campaign and won't let you talk to scientists? Now you can shine more light on the obfuscation with the digital "Plum Book."

The Plum Book is a list of most major federal political appointments that is published every four years. These are jobs at federal agencies for high-level managers who are not subject to federal Civil Service rules (aka Schedule C). The Plum Book has long been a starting point for juicy stories — but hard to use because it was only published in print. Now, glory be, it has been digitized. That makes it grist for data journalists.

There are lots of reasons why gumshoe journalists should care. It will be easier to track the "revolving door" by which federal officials come from — and return to — industries they regulate. Federal officials may cash in by lobbying, working for specific companies, or working for trade groups, just for example. And in anti-regulatory administrations, the regulators themselves may be appointed from the ranks of the regulated industries.

Moreover, the Plum Book might be used to detect "burrowers" — political appointees who do not leave when their president is swept out of office by an election, but instead take refuge in a permanent civil service job.

But this year the Government Printing Office, no doubt catering to the mobile device user, published a "Plum Book App," which is essentially the old book in database form. This makes it much easier to capture the data for reporting projects.

Many of the usual caveats for data journalism apply: for example, you always need to check data against ground truth. Additional problems are created by the fact that the Plum Book only comes out every four years — so you get just a snapshot of a changing situation. But cleverness and shoe leather can often overcome such obstacles.

Derek Willis told the world about this development in the New York Times' Open blog ("All the Code That's Fit to printf()"). He not only gives examples of how New York Times reporters have used the Plum Book for good stories, but he also explains how programmers can "scrape" it.