Fourth Quarter Blues

As this term winds down, career employees must stay in the game.

The fourth quarter of an administration can be problematic for career civil servants. Many of the starting players and regulars begin to leave. Substitutions become frequent and agency teams start to lose energy as plans and missions wind up in a holding pattern. As the Bush administration approaches the end of its game, many will focus on the 2008 election and beyond, when a new team will head to Washington. It's no wonder so many managers and executives catch the fourth quarter blues. Here are three rules to keep you in the game.

1. Stay focused; you still have a job to do. Regardless of what you read in the newspapers, the American public has not sent you a message. They might have sent your bosses a message, but they expect you to keep doing your job. Citizens expect continuity in government and the continued delivery of high-quality service.

The administration might be slowing down at the policy level, but there can be no slowdowns on the career side of government. There will be fewer new initiatives and less excitement in the halls, but your job has not changed. Statutory laws still must be administered. The agency's strategic plan has not gone away, and you have an obligation to complete it as successfully as you can. In fact, you might even need to put extra effort into bringing initiatives such as the President's Management Agenda to fruition in the fourth quarter.

2. Use your time wisely. You have an opportunity to start thinking and planning for the next administration, which will begin on Jan. 20, 2009. This is a good time to assess the state of your organization. Have you updated your workforce plan? Do you have the right staffing mix for the remainder of the decade, or should you hire people with certain skill sets? Does the agency's strategic plan need a review?

Creative thinking and planning is vital for the next game. Don't waste time simply waiting for the next team to show up and give you a new plan. You should have an agenda to present to them. The new team will appreciate your guidance.

3. If you are appointed in an acting capacity, take the position seriously. Career civil servants often are named as acting officials until a new political appointee arrives, which can take a long time, if ever at this point in the administration. Even in these unsettled times, it is critical to assess the state of your organization and attempt to actually improve it during your tenure. Acting officials tend to avoid tough decisions. If you have a tough personnel decision to make, make it, and if you have to sign off on a controversial new regulation, do it, instead of handing off a pile of unfinished business. It's always easier to wait for the guy in charge. But quarterbacks don't quit calling plays just because they might not start in the next quarter. There is simply too much to do, and the stakes are too high to wait for the next person to show up.

It's natural and understandable to catch the fourth quarter blues. But it is unacceptable to stay in a funk for the next two years. Take time to review your strategy, catch your breath and stay in the game. There is still much to do.

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc., a firm specializing in creating thought leadership on government management. He served as the first executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the first president of the Council for Excellence in Government. He can be reached at mark.abramson@us.ibm.com.

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