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

Picking Appointees


In the push to make government work more effectively, much attention has been devoted to attracting top talent to career civil service jobs. But it's just as crucial to bring in political appointees who have the right experience for agencies' unique management challenges.

Political executives are the quarterbacks of government. They call the plays (with some help from their coaches at the White House and department headquarters). Their organizations look to them for leadership. In January 2013, regardless of who wins the presidential election, a new set of appointees will be arriving in Washington, and they will be key to the success of government as a whole.

The Office of Presidential Personnel, which identifies candidates for political jobs, faces a major challenge in selecting the right people for the right position. Too often the presumption is that all political positions are the same and that any smart person could fill them. But the specs for appointee positions are varied, and each demands a particular professional background. There is no doubt that nearly everyone on the long list of candidates for presidential appointments has a distinguished career and impressive academic credentials. The question is whether they have the right set of skills for the organization they are selected to lead. Instead of basing the selection process on department or policy issues-such as health, defense or natural resources- the search process should focus on an agency's management challenges.

When politicians talk about running government like a business, they generally are talking about production agencies like the Social Security Administration, the Homeland Security Department's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Education Department's Office of Federal Student Aid. These agencies produce clear outputs and outcomes, such as applications processing and benefits disbursement.

Leading a production agency requires interaction with front-line staff and an understanding of what they do. Just ask Bill Taggart, who left the banking industry to become chief operating officer at FSA in 2009. It was Taggart's challenge to implement new legislation that shifted responsibility for administering federally insured student loans from private entities to FSA. "We needed to think like a manufacturing plant," says Taggart, who recently left the agency and is now chief executive officer at Atlanta Life Financial Group. "You have to get down on the floor, wander around, see folks and engage them . . . I visited FSA regional offices. I was the first COO that many of the regional office staff had ever seen."

Think of the factory floor, where industrial efficiency conjures up images of Frederick Winslow Taylor and scientific management. Factory managers track inputs, outputs, accuracy and cycle time. Based on his legal career in intellectual property, David Kappos, director of the Patent and Trademark Office, quickly understood the inputs and outputs at his agency. Confirmed in August 2009, Kappos launched an initiative to reduce the backlog of patents pending to less than 700,000. In January 2010, the number of patents pending peaked at 764,352. To track the agency's progress on measures including backlog, production and the time it takes to process patent reviews, Kappos monitors a dashboard of indicators. In July 2011, patents pending dipped to an all-time low of 689,226.

Before coming to PTO, Kappos spent most of his career at IBM working closely with the agency and the intellectual property community. Likewise, Taggart's tenure at Wachovia Corp. proved invaluable in preparing him for guiding student lending operations. Both executives had firsthand experience on the front lines of running a business.

Many political appointees have strong policy backgrounds, but often their experience in the private sector is limited or nonexistent. Business leaders have been selected from time to time, but the sub-Cabinet has been largely dominated by policy types. During the 1990s, political hiring began to shift from policy experts to experienced managers, but more are required. The selection of Charles Rossotti in 1997 to head the Internal Rev­enue Service, for example, was exactly what was needed at that time to respond to the agency's technology problems and outdated systems. Rossotti, co-founder of a technology consulting firm and a former Defense Department analyst, was ideally suited to reform the IRS through new technology and an increased focus on customer service.

It's not enough for political executives to have distinguished resumes; they should have experience managing oper­ations that relate to their agencies' missions and management challenges. That's the best hope for running government like a business.

Paul R. Lawrence, a principal at Ernst & Young LLP, and Mark A. Abramson, president of Leadership Inc., are co-authors of the forthcoming Paths to Making a Difference: Leading in Government (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.