Meet the New Boss

It's been eight years since the last change in presidential administrations, so career executives and managers across government are brushing up on their transition skills.

Pre-transition jitters are common for both career executives and political appointees, but those who have been through the process say most of the time both groups go into the new situation with the best intentions. "There is an awful lot of goodwill on the part of career employees, and most look forward to working with new people," says Rosslyn Kleeman, distinguished executive in residence at The George Washington University's Department of Public Administration. Kleeman spent most of her federal career with the General Accounting Office, and also worked in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel during the Clinton transition. "Although political appointees are often uncertain about their roles and the rules and regulations, they too are eager to get off on a positive foot with career employees," Kleeman says.

June Huber, director of the General Services Administration's transition support office, which provides office space, furnishings, equipment and other services to the new administration, says presidential transitions are a great opportunity for civil servants to make a fresh start. "You are meeting people who don't know you, and that is an opportunity to make a new impression," says Huber. "It's like a new year at school with a new teacher."

To Do List

Surviving transitions isn't an exact science, but most federal executives agree there are some basic guidelines that career civil servants should keep in mind when working with a new set of political bosses.

  • Be patient. Kleeman emphasizes that getting off on the right foot with the incoming administration often means helping people get accustomed to working in government. "During the Clinton transition, we sent liaisons into the federal agencies, and very often they were campaign workers, or had little government experience. I found that some of the career employees were not as patient as they could have been with them," says Kleeman. John Palguta, a career employee for 32 years and currently the director of policy and evaluation at the Merit Systems Protection Board, agrees. "Some appointees are going to be young and/or inexperienced, and our job is to assist them and help them learn," Palguta says.
  • Be flexible. Avoid the "Been there, done that and it didn't work" attitude, veteran career executives advise. "You have to understand that a new team may not see things the same way, and that they have the right to set policy and change direction. You have to be prepared for the possibilities," Palguta says.
  • Show enthusiasm and support for the new team. "Eager and enthusiastic career executives get the highest marks from appointees," says Kleeman. Palguta reminds career civil servants to remember their role. "Our goal is to implement laws and policy, not make it," Palguta says. When it comes to supporting the new administration's policies, "you've got to fish or cut bait," he says. In other words, if you cannot support the new team's agenda, it might be time to leave the agency.
  • Get the career team ready. Dennis Fischer, the vice president for government solutions at VISA USA, spent 30 years in government, retiring in April from his position as head of the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service. Fischer says his experience with transitions has taught him that it is important for career executives to form strong teams that work effectively together before the new administration is in place, so they can be more helpful to appointees.
  • Be positive. Veteran career officials advise their colleagues to view transitions as a chance to start over and make a positive impression. "Look at the transition as an opportunity, not a threat. This is not the time to hunker down and take a low profile," says Palguta. "There are new players, new energy and a clean slate." Fischer is more philosophical. "Change comes along; you have to accept it and move forward with it," he says.
  • Listen. "It is really important to listen first and get a sense of what appointees' thoughts are, and be ready to respond in ways you can be of use in helping them achieve their goals," Palguta emphasizes. "Focus on what the new leadership thinks is important because that is what they have been appointed to do," says Huber.
  • Speak English. Newcomers are usually frustrated by bureaucratic jargon and acronyms that mean nothing to them. "The best material is clear, short, and addresses the issues succinctly," says Huber.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Just as important as knowing what to do during a transition is knowing what not to do.

  • Don't bury the new team in briefings. When it comes to the briefing book, all agree that less is more. "Work very hard to condense advice, and try not to overwhelm a new appointee with every detail," warns Kleeman.
  • Don't always be a follower. Being helpful does not mean you should blindly follow every directive. Part of a career employee's job is keeping his or political boss out of trouble, Palguta says. So warn political appointees about ethical dos and don'ts. But when you do, make sure you explain your reasons. "Sometimes career civil servants need to say no, but when you say no, you need to explain why," says Huber.
  • Hold your tongue. Remember that old adage, if you can't say something nice, then don't say anything at all? Don't bad-mouth the new team, say career civil servants-but don't trash the previous administration, either. All in all, it is important to see where the other person is coming from, and to judge that person on his merits, not his stereotype, say those who have survived transitions. "We often find that many political appointees come in being very suspicious about career employee's loyalties and capabilities. After the appointees get to know them though, you mostly hear praise [about career employees]. To know them is to love them," says Palguta.

Anticipating the Transition

Although veteran career civil servants don't seem too worried about the upcoming transition, public servants who have risen through the ranks to senior management during the eight years of the Clinton administration have yet to experience a change in leadership. "A new person in the White House can shake things up," says Palguta. "That is not necessarily bad, but it can be anxiety-producing for some career employees, especially if it is their first transition."

But Palguta says all transitions, regardless of administration, have their similarities. "There are certain dynamics associated with every transition, and those dynamics are going to be the same regardless of whether Bush or Gore wins."

Kleeman says career employees often think transitions will be worse than they really are. "The anticipation of a transition is often more traumatic than the transition itself," she says. Huber agrees. "When it actually happens, it is not nearly as painful. The apprehension is worse." David O. "Doc" Cooke, the director of administration and management at the Defense Department, who has been at the Pentagon since 1958, says some agencies are more used to change than others.

"The Pentagon is quite accustomed to transitions in the sense that senior military officials move every two or three years. So the people working here are accustomed to having new people at the top. We live with transition," says Cooke.

Palguta and Huber say the most contentious transitions tend to take place in agencies where appointees outnumber career executives. For example, the Education Department is usually top-heavy with appointed officials, and since education seems to be a priority for both candidates, Huber points out, it will no doubt be a focus regardless of who is elected. "I would hazard a guess that the Education Department will probably have an active transition," she says.

Huber also notes, though, that across government, executives are already gearing up for transition 2001, and are more prepared than in the past. "Federal agencies are getting ready earlier this time around, and they are helping each other more," she says. Huber's team, which is made up of GSA career civil servants who have had prior experience with transitions, is enthusiastic about its role in the event.

"How many times do you have an opportunity to make a first impression-a good first impression-on an administration?" says Huber. "We are going to bend over backward to do it right."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec