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A Dangerous Moment for Career Senior Executives

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Flickr user Nathan Borror

Prior to my retirement in 2011, I spent 37 years at the Labor Department, 23 of which were at the senior executive level. That and my service on the board of directors of the Senior Executives Association—which I chaired from 2006 to 2010—gave me plenty of experience in new administrations’ transitions to power.

Transitions are the moment when senior career executives earn their pay. They must guide their organizations (often in unfamiliar acting roles) during a period when little or no direction is coming from the top and employees at all levels are nervous and uncertain. They must reach out to new political leaders as they gradually arrive, giving advice and providing vast quantities of information to bring them up to speed. Because highly complex organizations must continue to function, important decisions must be made in the context of a near-total lack of understanding and familiarity between new political leaders and career employees.

Most administrations during my tenure started out distrustful of the career staff they inherited. But all discovered before long that the career folks, especially those in the Senior Executive Service, are competent, nonpartisan, and critical to keeping the trains running and getting policy decisions implemented. It might take a while, and serious pitfalls are common, but eventually working relationships get established.

But prior experience doesn’t apply to the Trump administration. Many of its cabinet secretaries seem to have been nominated based on the degree of their animosity toward—or lack of knowledge of—the organizations they were asked to lead. Many assistant secretary and deputy secretary positions have been left fallow, with the president suggesting on multiple occasions that he has no intention of filling all of them.

Given President Trump’s disdain for Washington, his inexperience, and his talk of “draining the swamp,” serious disruption during this transition was to be expected. But senior career staff continue to play their normal stabilizing role, providing continuity, reassuring employees, and making sure that laws, rules and obligations are honored.

At the same time, since most senior executives care too deeply about their organizations and their missions to sit quietly when those values are threatened, career-threatening events can occur.

The exodus of high-level career executives from the State Department was an early indication of the struggles to come, but the situation at the Interior Department stands out as a signal event for the SES corps in this dangerous moment.

Before the administration had filled its key assistant secretary positions at Interior—the appointee level for which the 120-day “get acquainted” period for career senior executives was created—Secretary Ryan Zinke announced and implemented a sweeping reassignment of 50 SESers. This game of musical chairs seemed designed to disrupt the functioning of the agencies involved, and likely to drive as many executives as possible into retirement or quiescence. Zinke could not possibly have assessed the strengths and weaknesses of all these executives, and his proffered rationale was rote human resources-speak about the value of SES mobility.

Joel Clement, Interior’s highest-ranking climate scientist, was summarily reassigned to a position monitoring oil and gas companies’ royalty payments—a job not suited to his experience and an apparent slap in the face for his work on climate change. Clement’s response—filing a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel and making his case in a Washington Post op-ed—is admirable. He’s fighting to return to his critical work helping Alaskan Native Americans affected by the melting of the Arctic.

By taking his fight public, Clement is standing up for career SESers across the government who have been or may soon be similarly mistreated. That’s exactly the kind of principled action I anticipated from the SES corps.

OSC will determine whether rules were broken, but either way, this action was highly unusual. No such mass SES reassignment occurred during any federal agency transition during my 23 years at the career-political interface.

Fifty SESers at Interior were impacted by this preemptive strike. More mass reassignments across government could be in the works as agencies develop reorganization plans. This is not a routine transition strategy. It’s a signal that the protections established to prevent politically motivated mistreatment are at risk. That’s why a group of legal scholars recently wrote a letter supporting Clement’s case and urging OSC to “ensure respect for the legal limits of reassignment of members of the SES.”

Good government organizations should show similar support for the integrity of the career SES, which is the embodiment of nonpartisan, fair and effective government. This administration needs to know it will meet principled and organized resistance if it takes actions that abuse dedicated civil servants and undermine the functions of federal agencies.

Shelby Hallmark is a retired career senior federal executive in Silver City, New Mexico.

Photo: Flickr user Nathan Borror

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