Senior Seminar

Some of the government's top career executives have transition homework to do.

Preparing the career executive corps for a presidential transition is never as easy as it looks, and it becomes even more difficult during a global economic crisis and two ongoing wars.

In November, the National Academy of Public Administration released a survey of Senior Executive Service members that found most SESers were making traditional preparations for the transition, such as compiling agency budget information and scheduling briefings on key programs and initiatives. But 21 percent of respondents were unaware of such actions. The survey also found that 33 percent of senior executives had not experienced a shift in political leadership at their agency.

"I'm a charter member of the SES, and the response of 20 percent of existing senior executives who said they could not answer the question of the transition activities under way at their agencies-that's deplorable," said Kristine Marcy, an associate at the consulting firm McConnell International, during a Nov. 20, 2008, presentation of the survey results in Washington. "The whole premise of the Senior Executive Service is that you have the management and leadership skills to step up to the plate."

The questionnaire, distributed to 4,799 senior executives in September and October 2008, had a 23 percent response rate. The goal was to determine how to cultivate effective partnerships between career managers and appointees in the new administration. But NAPA President Jenna Dorn says the results merely represent "a snapshot of a point in time," and, if conducted again in December 2008 or January 2009, the survey would have yielded much more positive results on senior executives' preparation.

"One of the clear results was a calling out of a real interest in senior executives having the opportunity to work with and talk to their peers across different agencies to understand what techniques and tools they used to both brief and build trust with the new team coming in," she says. "They also said there was a lot they could learn and would like to explore."

As a result, NAPA launched its first executive workshop in December on transition readiness, Dorn says. More than a couple of dozen senior executives from 10 agencies participated and learned about the uniqueness of this particular transition period and how to jump-start relationships with incoming political appointees. The workshops received high ratings from senior executives, she says, and the academy plans to hold additional sessions this winter. "There really is an appetite for discussing this important time and how the SES leadership ranks can be both supportive and helpful in providing contextual information and making sure that the really important, trusting relationship is fostered from the get-go," Dorn says.

Still, the significant turnover in the SES as a result of retirements could have an even greater impact on future transitions, despite a possible downturn in retirements because of the current financial landscape, according to Dorn. Based on the survey results, "one could safely assume that 75 percent of senior executives had not been through a presidential transition or an agency transition" in their current position, she says.

Shelby Hallmark, director of the Office of Workers' Compensation and chairman of the executive committee for the Senior Executives Association, says the government is primarily responsible for training the new SES cadre on managing the leadership handoff. "I think it's important that our executives get training in how to approach the transition, and it's perhaps just as important that the incoming political folks get training in how to address that particular relationship-building activity," he says.

Training and development programs also should ensure that SES members gain experience in addition to that from a single agency, Dorn adds, to guarantee that federal leaders understand how their work relates to their own agency and the rest of government.

SEA has stepped up to the task, and last year provided training to senior executives by hosting workshops and leadership conferences as well as developing materials to help incoming political appointees understand their roles and responsibilities and how best to work with career executives to achieve the administration's goals. "SEA has run into a number of executives who have indeed not been through a transition," says SEA President Carol Bonosaro. "Being in the SES is a very different experience where you're presumably working on putting together briefing books, meeting and briefing transition teams and dealing with new political appointees."

Despite the challenges posed by federal retirements from the SES, Dorn argues that the current transition has been unprecedented in its efficiency as a result of the detailed planning and cooperation from the outgoing and incoming administrations. "The process and the issues are just so transparent in terms of SESers and others in government knowing what to expect, at least on the policy front," she says. "That allows a much more seamless transition. It will be the role of the SES to provide both the budgetary context and the how-to of operating an agency for the incoming political team."

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