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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Getting Acquainted

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Ever so slowly, they're coming. By the end of the year, most of them will have arrived at a federal agency near you.

Seven months after President Obama took office, more than a third of his administration is finally on its way. By the end of August, The Washington Post's nominee tracker Head Count showed 35.4 percent -- or 230 -- of President Obama's 501 Senate-confirmed posts are filled, with another 14.4 percent -- or 72 -- nominated or announced. An unknown number of lower level officials have been on the job for a while.

Each presidential transition seems slower than the last, although Obama has stepped up the pace. From John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton (when I stopped counting) each president took more time to fill executive branch positions than the one before. An obstacle course-like appointment process of endless financial reports, FBI checks, internal vetting and increased congressional scrutiny delays selection and confirmation of nominees, and discourages some of the most sought-after candidates.

Most observers agree simpler ethics rules and fewer political appointees are needed. Last spring, the Democratic Leadership Council released a paper by Edward Gresser of the Progressive Policy Institute that proposed cutting the numbers of Senate-confirmed presidential appointments and simplifying the vetting process, echoing calls by public administration experts dating back to the 1987 Volcker commission.

But reducing the numbers of Senate confirmations would alienate senators, and streamlining their vetting would put off good government groups. Serious reform of the political appointment process is just not going to happen. Career bureaucrats will continue to face a steady stream of late-arriving political appointees, some of whom will not stay long enough to learn their jobs. So what can bureaucrats do to work with the political appointee system we have, as opposed to the one we would like?

Having written two books on the subject, I must admit that as is typical of social science -- vast scholarly research simply confirms common sense. In two surveys of more than 1,200 political appointees and career bureaucrats, I found that if the president supports an organization's mission, as in the Reagan Defense Department or the Clinton Health and Human Services Department, then relations between political appointees and career bureaucrats start well and stay that way. But even the most conflict-prone agencies usually undergo what authors and public administration specialists James P. Pfiffner and Paul Lorentzen have called a "cycle of accommodation." That's when political career relations start badly, but gradually improve, in part since the longer careerists and political appointees work together, the more they come to respect each other.

So what can career executives do to speed the cycle? Years of surveys and interviews offer the following common-sense prescriptions.

Avoid stereotypes

Most political appointees are qualified. As David E. Lewis documents in his book The Politics of Presidential Appointments (Princeton University Press, 2008), they have less agency-specific experience and are not as effective at internal management than career bureaucrats, but political appointees generally have more education and more varied experience. Careerists must remember that "every political appointee has something you don't," as one Clinton appointee said. It could be knowledge of the budget process, or public relations skill. It could be state government experience. It could be a White House, Office of Management and Budget or congressional connection. Whatever it is, find out what political appointees bring to the table, and how they can help your agency work better.

Put new appointees in touch with their predecessors

These new leaders find themselves entering an unfamiliar organization and knowing few or none of its people. Not surprisingly, 81 percent of the Clinton appointees surveyed said they wanted to consult their predecessors. Some agencies include as part of their orientation materials for new appointees the names and contact information of their predecessors, regardless of political party or administration.

Communicate first

According to a career executive in Clinton's transition, "The trouble with the civil service during a transition is that we're just too civil. We don't say anything." Career executives should request a one-on-one meeting with a new appointee to get acquainted, to explain what they do, and to see what the appointee wants and needs. After all, if you don't know what they want, then you can't help them get it. During such meetings, it is bad form to bad-mouth the prior leadership.

Forgive them their trespasses

Just as career executives often stereotype political appointees, appointees start off with their own preconceptions about bureaucrats. Negative views usually become positive, but this will happen more quickly if everyone remembers Proverbs 15:1: A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.

Know how to say no

Most appointees join government out of idealism; they want to improve public service. At the same time, not all their ideas will be practical, or even legal. When you disagree with an appointee, try to explain why in terms of the law or external political forces, some of which might be changeable over the long term. Try to provide other options to achieve their goals. And some ideas might be practical, but for you, unacceptable. As one career executive said, "I was once proposed to be detailed to a position supporting a political official … I suggested that this would be a bad idea for me and for the person for whom I would work, because I had a very basic disagreement with the policy. I was not detailed, and this is the way these matters usually are resolved."

Move if you must

But suppose you disagree with your boss's entire agenda, or simply can't work with him. Should you wait this out? Maybe not. During the Reagan years, appointees in two-term administrations served for a mean of 2.6 years in their position but 3.7 years at their agency -- a long time. And the best and the worst appointees often stay the longest, the former because they love the work and the latter because no one else will hire them. Rather than persevere with a toxic boss, you could seek a soft landing elsewhere. This is doubly true if the boss is a career executive, since they tend to stay in place longer.

Be nice to appointees on their way out With exceptions like Defense Secretary Robert Gates, holdovers from one administration to the next are rare. Sooner or later, for better or worse, your political boss will be out -- but not necessarily gone. Many former appointees continue to influence the executive branch as lobbyists or congressional staffers. And someday, in the not too distant future, that GS-12 Schedule C could return as an undersecretary. So treat appointees with respect, from the orientation to the farewell party. Put yourself in their shoes. In Washington, just like the real world, it's nice to be smart, but it's also smart to be nice.

Robert Maranto is 21st century chair in leadership at the University of Arkansas' department of education reform. Among his books is Beyond a Government of Strangers: How Career Executives and Political Appointees Can Turn Conflict to Cooperation (Lexington, 2005). He can be reached at rmaranto@uark.edu.

 
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