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Getting ahead: Secrets to climbing the government ladder

The most successful civil servants tend to be people who successfully navigate the tricky terrain where political appointees and career officials meet.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson says that crisis moments like Hurricane Katrina or September 11 can offer proving grounds for those looking to work their way up the ladder in the federal government.

"In those kinds of situations, people in my position look to who's volunteering to help," said Johnson, who took the helm in May after starting at the agency as a health scientist 25 years ago. "Who's volunteering to sacrifice and sleep on a cot in a conference room and to walk three blocks to get a shower occasionally?"

As Johnson stresses, the truisms about getting ahead in Washington apply to federal agencies: You have to work hard, know your stuff, and always seek ways to take on new tasks that broaden your skills. But in this Washington realm, the people who ultimately go the farthest aren't just the best wonks and most dedicated civil servants. Climbers at federal agencies tend to be the people who successfully navigate the tricky terrain where political appointees and institutional career officials collaborate on policy-making.

"Too often, people in federal agencies tend to be somewhat insular and underestimate the need to engage with the stakeholders," said Daniel Troy, who served as chief counsel of the Food and Drug Administration as a political appointee during President Bush's first term and is now a partner at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood. Troy said that policy disagreements between political appointees and career officials are to be expected. Agency employees who can argue them out gracefully often earn a reputation as leadership material among those in position to promote them.

"I never minded if people disagreed with me," said Troy. "And I hope people didn't mind if I disagreed with them, if we could talk it out and work it out and eventually come to some kind of consensus view."

Jim Miller certainly knows the value of impressing political appointees. In the early 1970s, Miller started in Washington as an economist focusing on aviation issues at the Transportation Department. By 1981, he was chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. After that, Miller served as director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Reagan White House.

"I had a lot of people who, the way we Southerners talk, took a shine to me and gave me a helping hand along the way," said Miller, whose early work at Transportation drew the attention of GOP politicos. Miller, who also serves as a business and financial consultant to the Howrey law firm, said that part of his success was a constant pursuit of fresh skills and knowledge.

"One of the things about government, it's easy to ride on the knowledge you have. But after a while, that intellectual capital dissipates," said Miller, who is also currently serving as chairman of the board of governors of the U.S. Postal Service. "You need to keep constantly replenishing that reservoir of intellectual capital."

There's no clear starting point for a career at federal agencies. Some people are hired on the basis of their academic credentials. That's how Miller, who has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Virginia, got his start. Others get hired because of their private-sector experience. Johnson, for example, served as the director of operations at Hazelton Laboratories and Litton Bionetics before applying for an EPA job. And of course some, like Kevin Kolevar, come from the Hill.

Kolevar, who is director of the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability at the Energy Department, joined the department in 2001 as a senior policy adviser to then-Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. When Abraham was serving as GOP senator from Michigan, he hired Kolevar as a staffer. "When I first came over, I told myself I would stay here a year," Kolevar said. "Going into an agency from the Hill is a dramatic change. It took some getting used to, but I found that I enjoyed it."

Q & A

Jo Anne Barnhart, the commissioner of the Social Security Administration, began her Washington career in 1977 when she joined the staff of Sen. William Roth Jr., R-Del., who died in 2003. Before being named to her current post in 2001, Barnhart, now 55, held senior posts at the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services in between return tours as a staffer in Roth's office.

NJ: When you started out in Washington, did you think you would wind up in the job you have now?

Barnhart: I can honestly say that I never dreamed that I could be commissioner of Social Security. I have always really just focused on whatever job I was doing at the time, and that remains true today. NJ: What do you think were some key turns in your career that led to success?

Barnhart: As I look back, I really see it more as a continuum. I think I learned things at every step that helped me as I moved to the next [step]. The things I learned contributed to the knowledge that I have, and the experience that I have, and the insight that I'm able to bring to bear on the issues I deal with today.

NJ: Do you think being a woman ever made it difficult for you to advance in the federal agencies where you've worked?

Barnhart: I've never seen it as an issue.

NJ: What do you think helped you the most in your Washington rise?

Barnhart: Without question, it was Senator Bill Roth. He gave me my very first opportunity to work in Washington, and you know how important that can be. He was also a wonderful role model for a young person new to Washington and beginning a career. And he supported those of us who were fortunate enough to work for him. He encouraged us. He was a wonderful mentor. I think having a supportive family has been absolutely key as well.

NJ: How important are connections?

Barnhart: I don't think it's that important, and I'll tell you why. People may be able to make phone calls. And they may be able to get you in the door. But they don't keep the job for you, and they certainly don't get you the next job.

NJ: Some career federal employees say that they face limits on how far they can rise without getting involved in party politics and campaigns. Do you agree with that?

Barnhart: Absolutely not. At Social Security, we have really a handful of political appointees at an agency of over 65,000 people. When you take a look at our deputy-level posts, most of them are held by career employees. The overwhelming majority of people who are in leadership posts here are career people at this agency.

NJ: What do you think is the quickest way to excel at a federal agency?

Barnhart: Generally, I'd say it's the same as anywhere else: Do the best job you can do where you are. I can't emphasize that enough. I think you also have to look for opportunities to show your own capabilities. Federal agencies offer a number of leadership and career-development programs. I think it's really important for people to take advantage of those. And keep a lookout for details and special assignments, short-term experiences that allow you to get outside the area where you're working every day and do something different. Sometimes, people go to the Hill. Sometimes, people go to other federal agencies. I strongly, strongly recommend taking advantage of those opportunities. And when they don't just come to you, seek them out and try to create them for yourself.

NJ: What kind of people do really well at federal agencies?

Barnhart: People who are able to synthesize voluminous amounts of information, because there is an awful lot to read, absorb, and assimilate. Also, people who do well go where the path doesn't necessarily lead. I feel very strongly that people who are looking for innovative ways to help their agency do a better job at succeeding.

NJ: What are some pitfalls for people working at federal agencies?

Barnhart: I think getting caught up in the status quo, not being willing to chart that new trail.

NJ: What's the biggest drawback about working in the executive branch, as opposed to working on the Hill or someplace else in Washington?

Barnhart: I'm not sure I would call this a drawback, but one of the real differences that I see is that on a daily basis on the Hill, you get a really broad perspective as far as what's happening on a range of issues. When you move into the executive branch, you really tend to focus pretty much on your programs, on the issues that are in your agency. I think the real challenge is not to become so exclusively focused on your own agency or the particular issue that you're working in every day that you lose an appreciation for what's happening elsewhere around the world and around the government.

NJ: What advice would you give to someone in the early part of his or her career at a federal agency?

Barnhart: Try to experience a lot of different parts of the agency you're in. Really try to get a varied experience. Test things out, and find what you like. And look for chances to show your talents, because odds are, if you've just come into the government, you're probably not doing the precise thing you want to do for the rest of your career.

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