The New World Appointee

t is long past time for the President to look at more than loyalty, public policy expertise and willingness to be a team player when choosing department secretaries, deputy secretaries and heads of agencies. As the nation faces another change in leadership-perhaps with trepidation, perhaps with eager anticipation-it is important to look at not only the occupant of the Oval Office, but also at those who will ride his shirttails into political positions. These appointees will touch the lives of every institution, citizen and federal employee in the nation. The job requires more than just being able to conceive, create and convince Congress to create public policy. Political appointees must be able to create a shared vision that others will follow; define goals; develop strategic and annual operating plans; collaborate with employees, their unions, state governments and the technology community; respond to congressional oversight; and provide a customer focus.

It is time for the President to consider whether the people filling these important positions have the interest, expertise and experience to lead and manage an enterprise. Key political appointees must have proven ability and flexibility to recognize that managing in government is unique. It is time for the President to choose and evaluate key political appointees based on their ability to effectively implement the public policy they inherit or create.

Making Policies Work
The definition of "success" for political appointees has changed. The public wants the government to be more responsive and user-friendly. For example, citizens want 24/7 access to the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration and the Veterans Administration. They want information that is fast, accurate and delivered by friendly employees. Citizens do not want to play phone tag with several agencies to learn about government benefits and how to apply; they want a government that's efficient.

Congress has responded to such demands by passing the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act and other legislation that focuses on ensuring that public policy is implemented, and implemented efficiently. For example, Congress has ordered agencies to measure outcomes of agency activities, not the process. For regulatory agencies, this means measuring compliance with laws rather than the number of enforcement actions taken. Congress, for example, wants to know whether the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is making the workplace safer, not how many fines have been levied. Similarly, the IRS is struggling to increase the overall taxpayer compliance rate through education and enforcement activity, rather than just increasing collections.

Congress and the public have changed the definition of "success" for political appointees to include policy implementation. A political appointee whose strategy centers only around creating policy and ignores those responsible for implementing it-career executives, mid-level managers and employees and their unions-runs a high risk of failure.

Real Managers
Political appointees must have leadership and managerial skills, in addition to the traditional selection criteria, says Sen. George O. Voinovich, R-Ohio, chairman of the Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring and the District of Columbia. Voinovich's belief is rooted in his experience as governor of Ohio, where he worked to institute a performance-based government. Voinovich asked the General Accounting Office to create a list of leadership and management questions to ask of all political appointees. He wants to send a message to the new President that the Senate expects him to nominate individuals who have those skills. In an August report, GAO developed four categories of necessary skills:

  • Results-oriented decision-making.
  • Financial management.
  • Information and technology management.
  • Human capital management.

The government has been slow to develop the systems needed to collect cost information, GAO says, and then use the data in developing annual and strategic operating plans. Political appointees must have the financial management skills needed to get agencies up to speed on performance-based, results-oriented decision-making.

GAO points out that "federal agencies have wasted billions of dollars in developing systems and processes that are not cost- effective, fail to deliver expected results and provide sub-optimal solutions to agencies' core mission and business needs." Political appointees must understand the role technology plays in implementing public services, how to evaluate whether an agency has the necessary technology, and how technology may support reengineered business processes.

Political appointees must understand that people are assets "whose value can be enhanced through investment," the GAO report says, adding that an agency's workforce must be aligned with its mission and goals. Political appointees are responsible for creating a performance culture based on strategic planning, leadership and talent.

These are well-known skills in high-performing companies in the private sector. But successful business executives do not automatically become successful political appointees. "I think businessmen make the worst appointees because they are used to command and control," E. Pendleton James, who was active in the transitions of Presidents Nixon and Reagan, said at a recent Heritage Foundation roundtable discussion. A political appointee who believes power must be accumulated and then exercised to implement public policy might change the boxes on the organizational chart, but would not create a performance-based culture. Successful appointees enlist their staffs in a vision of the present and future that satisfies customers and employees. Successful appointees collaborate with career executives, mid-level managers and employees through their labor unions. Persuasion, not force or threats of force, is used to create change.

Hail to the Chief
Selecting appointees with managerial skills is only the first step. The President must guide them to get policies implemented.

In 1993, a report by the National Performance Review recommended that the President develop performance agreements with the top 24 agency heads. Periodic reviews of the agreements and the appointees' performance would ensure communication and agreement on goals.

Unfortunately, the agreements were never developed. The President's Management Council was told in the 1993 report to "ensure that quality management principles are adopted, processes are reengineered and performance is assessed." The PMC, however, is no substitute for the President when it comes to leading Cabinet officers.

Policy implementation must improve if our new President's ambitious program is to become reality. He must select political appointees who have the interest and skills to meet the challenges. And the President must model the behavior he expects from political appointees by creating performance agreements with department heads and then by managing for success.

Robert M. Tobias is a distinguished practitioner in residence and director of the Institute for the Study of Policy Implementation at American University. He was president of the National Treasury Employees Union from 1983 to 1999.

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