Appointees, civil servants share secrets to a good relationship

Career civil servants and political employees can cultivate a constructive working relationship if they communicate effectively and don't view one another as adversaries, representatives of both groups said Tuesday during a panel discussion at the Excellence in Government conference in Washington.

For years, political appointees have harbored stereotypes of civil servants and civil servants have circulated their own myths about political appointees, said moderator Carl Fillichio, vice president of innovations and partnership programs at the Council for Excellence in Government, which hosted the conference along with Government Executive. Appointees often assume that civil servants are opposed to change and will attempt to undermine policy proposals, he said, while civil servants think appointees are shortsighted and condescending.

According to the panel, which included three former Clinton administration appointees, two Bush administration appointees, and a career civil servant, the truth lies somewhere in between. Paul Yandura, a Clinton appointee, likened the days he arrived for assignments at the White House, Small Business Administration and the Housing and Urban Development Department, to blind dates where each party has heard bad stories about the other. Yandura now has his own consulting company.

But appointees can build positive relationships with civil servants by showing a "willingness and interest" to learn about their work and draw on their expertise, said Lindsey Kozberg, who joined the Bush administration in 2001 as director of public affairs at the Education Department and is now special assistant to the president for the USA Freedom Corps. From the first day, appointees should make a concerted effort to learn where their predecessors have failed to form positive alliances with civil servants, she said, and should work to avoid similar pitfalls.

Even though appointees often arrive at federal agencies eager to implement changes, they need to slow down and involve civil servants in the decision-making process, Yandura said. Appointees need a "thick skin" and should hold their ground when trying to advance a political agenda, but they also need to pick their battles wisely and meet career federal workers half way on certain issues, Kozberg added.

Appointees can build a better rapport with civil servants if they stay grounded, advised Carmen MacDougall, who served at the Energy Department during the Clinton administration. Many appointees arrive in federal government having never worked in such a hierarchical organization, she explained. When they realize their power, they tend to get "full of themselves," she said. This is not a smart move if appointees hope to become friendly with career federal employees, she added.

Friendships are important because civil servants can help appointees gain a long-term perspective on policies, said Brian Waidmann, who joined the Interior Department in 2001 as Secretary Gale Norton's chief of staff. This historical perspective helps appointees avoid the common mistake of making decisions in a "vacuum," said Mark Hunker, who served as chief of staff and communications director at the Office of Personnel Management during the Clinton administration.

For their part, civil servants should realize that they are there to help appointees and work as a team, rather than to act as a "barrier to change," said Kirke Harper, who spent years as a career senior executive before he became president of the Leadership Development Academy at the Agriculture Department's graduate school in 2001. Longtime government workers should remember not to take it personally when political employees make a decision they do not agree with or like. In the long run, policy swings both ways, he said.

Civil servants probably should not "refer longingly to the prior administration," Harper joked. But jokes aside, if career government workers remain professional and aid appointees to the best of their ability, they will maintain constructive relationships, he said.

Also, civil servants should remember to respect appointees, just as they expect appointees to respect them, Hunker said. Appointees are usually at an agency because they have considerable expertise in a policy area and can make significant contributions to that agency, he added. They are not there to serve as enemies to longtime employees, he said.

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