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How To Be Successful in the Trump Administration: Four Lessons From Previous Political Appointees

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The first round of the Trump Administration Cabinet nominations is nearly complete. In the weeks ahead, subcabinet positions will be announced. 

Nominees face a difficult period between nomination and confirmation and they must proceed carefully.  There is, however, much they can do to prepare for the responsibilities to come.   

Based on interviews with previous political appointees, here are some words of advice:  

Lesson One: Be Prepared to Wait

Be warned! This can be a lengthy process. While the confirmation of cabinet secretaries and other high-level positions might proceed quickly, the confirmation of the subcabinet is likely to proceed very slowly throughout 2017. Based on interviews with previous appointees, wait times ranged from eight to 358 days, with three months being the average. During the Obama Administration, the average length of time between nomination and confirmation from 2009 to 2014 was 127 days. If a nominee is lucky (or if there is a crisis in an agency needing the urgent attention of a new appointee), confirmation might be expedited. More likely, however, it will be a frustrating, slow wait.

Erica Groshen, commissioner of the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, was a vice president in the Research and Statistics Group at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York when she was tapped for the position. After her nomination in mid-February 2012, Groshen recalls, "I started spending my time finishing up my work at the Federal Reserve. In July 2012, I was told that my nomination would be held up until after the presidential election in November. I was prepared for the possibility of a delay . . . I focused on getting my work and home in order." Groshen was confirmed in January 2013, nearly 11 months after her nomination.

Gayle E. Smith, a former national security aide, was nominated in April 2015 to serve as administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. The previous administrator had left the position in February 2015. A Senate committee approved her by a voice vote on July 29 with no objections. The full Senate vote was held up by one senator. On Nov. 30, a vote was finally held on the Senate floor. Ms. Smith was confirmed 79-7, seven months after her nomination.

Unlike Groshen and Smith, Terry Garcia's experience did not end as well. In May 2011, Garcia was nominated to be deputy secretary of Commerce. When nominated, Garcia was an executive vice president at the National Geographic Society. His nomination, along with several other Department of Commerce nominations, was held up by the Senate. In October 2011, Garcia was reported to have become frustrated with the continued delay and asked that his nomination be withdrawn. An administration official told Reuters, "He has been held up for no specific objection to him, his qualifications, or background. We've had this happen with a lot of our nominees, where there's an objection raised that has nothing to do with their qualifications."

Lesson Two: Talk to Predecessors and Experts

While the conventional wisdom is that nominees must keep a low profile between nomination and confirmation, this does not mean that nominees shouldn't seek advice and talk to many individuals. You can put the long wait time to good use.

David Stevens, former assistant secretary for housing and commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, did his homework for the new position on weekends while still working at his previous job. "I would spend weekends with binders to learn more about the department. I would also make phone calls on weekends to talk with people about the position. You need to use your pre-confirmation time wisely. You should talk to previous incumbents and find out about their experience. I used the time to become as knowledgeable on issues as possible and find as many resources—both people and written materials—as I could."

Nearly all of those interviewed spent time talking with predecessors from both parties. Many suggested seeking out predecessors from all previous administrations, regardless of party affiliation. Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Homeland Security Department, recalls, "Regarding predecessors, I talked to Ali Mayorkas (my immediate predecessor) and two Bush Administration appointees . . . I found my conversations with the Bush Administration appointees helpful."

In addition to talking to predecessors, nominees should also to seek out experts in their professional community to get input into their new position and agency.

Lesson Three: Gather Information 

Today, it is much easier for a nominee to obtain information about agency operations than during earlier administrations. While nominees ultimately receive briefing books in advance of their confirmation hearings, they will be on their own in the immediate days after nomination.

"I have been confirmed twice for presidential appointments," recalls Kathryn Sullivan, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "The confirmation process was similar in both instances, but my pre-confirmation preparations were very different. Prior to my first appointment, I was assigned to the Office of the Administrator where I undertook several projects which served as a great introduction to NOAA programs and issues."

"The second time (2010)," says Sullivan, "I relied on the Internet for my preparatory research. The variety and volume of materials available online—budgets, program evaluations, independent review reports, and more—allowed me to become quite familiar with NOAA's current operations and challenges." 

Lesson Four: Take Advantage of Onboarding Services  

As discussed in "What the State Department Can Teach Agencies About Preparing New Appointees for the Job," we highlighted the value of State's three-week Ambassadorial Seminar. Participation is mandatory. 

While few departments are likely to undertake three-week seminars, we believe that all departments should be assigned responsibility for onboarding their new appointees and providing learning opportunities to them. These activities should be undertaken between confirmation and nomination for maximum impact. 

After confirmation, there will be many demands on nominees' time, which will leave little time for preparation for the new position. It is imperative that the crucial period between nomination and confirmation be used wisely and effectively.

Joseph Gurney is Leader, Public Sector Practice and Senior Vice President, Kaiser Associates, Inc. His e-mail: joe.gurney@kaiserassociates.com.; Paul R. Lawrence is Vice President at Kaiser Associates. His email: plawrence@kaiserassociates.com.; Mark A. Abramson is President, Leadership Inc. His email: mark.abramson@thoughtleadershipinc.com.

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