What Agency Executives Can Learn From Timothy Geithner

From the memoirs of Obama administration appointees.

A host of memoirs by former Obama administration Cabinet chiefs have been arriving in bookstores, offering valuable management lessons for political appointees and career civil servants. This is the first in a series on the experiences of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (Stress Test), Defense Secretary Robert Gates (Duty), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Hard Choices), and Defense and intelligence chief Leon Panetta (Worthy Fights).

In Stress Test, Timothy Geithner chronicles his challenging path as Treasury Department secretary during one of the nation’s most crippling economic crises since the Great Depression. Among insights for government leaders:

There are two Washingtons—one a “policy city” and the other an “operations city.” Geithner spent his government career focused on policy as opposed to the operations of government. In Stress Test, he describes the enormous challenge of getting policy right. In his positions as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and then Treasury secretary, Geithner spent his time deploying the tools of monetary and fiscal policy to lessen the impact of the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. In reflecting on his career in public service, Geithner writes of his love of “the craft of economic policy.”

Of the 10 bureaus within Treasury (where 98 percent of its employees are located), the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is the only one mentioned in Geithner’s 600-page book. He was not thinking much about the operations of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the U.S. Mint, or the Internal Revenue Service during his time at Treasury. This is not a criticism. In fact, many political executives spend their time almost exclusively on policy, not operations. The key insight for future political appointees is to understand what type of position they being appointed to. An operational position would not have been an effective use of Geithner’s talents and experience, which were clearly rooted in policy. Implementers are not policy folks and policymakers are not implementers.

Government service is a team sport. In his memoir, Geithner is generous in his praise of colleagues at the Federal Reserve and Treasury. The dedication reads: “For the intrepid public servants at the Treasury and the Federal Reserve who worked with great skill and devotion to help guide their country through the crisis.” The final chapter, “Tribute to a Crisis Team,” is devoted to the accomplishments of those he served with at the Federal Reserve, the New York Fed, and Treasury. Geithner writes, “Exceptional were the people involved in the (crisis) response and their spirit of cooperation. I wanted to recognize them and give you a sense of their contributions.” Geithner realized that his effectiveness as secretary largely depended on his ability to mobilize and unify the array of public servants working to respond to the economic crisis.

You have to communicate what you are doing. Geithner is critical of himself for his poor communication skills during the financial crisis and his entire tenure. While proud of the decisions he made to try to rescue the economy, he writes, “I never found an effective way to explain to the public what we were doing and why.” He expresses deep regrets about not having done a better job of explaining the administration’s strategy. Numerous political executives have stressed the importance of communicating to stakeholders, including the public. Appointees and career civil servants need to understand that their challenge is not only to do their job effectively, but also to communicate what they are doing.

Appointees will need patience in working with Congress. Geithner does not mince words about his difficulty in dealing with Congress. “I witnessed some appalling behavior in the political arena—selfishness and grandstanding, shameless hypocrisy and mindless partisanship,” he writes. “Dealing with Congress, to put it mildly, did not feel like a careful deliberative journey in search of the best public policy.” Future appointees need to be prepared to operate in this increasingly partisan environment.

Public service is worthwhile. Throughout his tenure, Geithner had to refute the incorrect assertion that he was a Wall Street banker (many thought he was a Goldman Sachs alumnus). In fact, Geithner started his career as a GS-13 civil servant in Treasury’s International Trade Office and spent 12 years at the department. He became a career deputy assistant secretary and then accepted a political appointment late in the Clinton administration. Chapter 2, “An Education in Crisis,” details his time as a career civil servant—required reading for those considering a career in public service. “I didn’t go into government to be a reforming crusader,” Geithner writes. “I just wanted to do interesting and consequential work. I wanted to be part of something larger than myself.” 

Geithner hopes that reflecting on the crisis “encourages Americans to reconsider the value of strong public institutions and capable public servants.” By describing his own experiences in government, his memoir might serve to attract future generations to public service.

Mark A. Abramson is president of management consulting firm Leadership Inc., and Paul R. Lawrence is a principal in Ernst & Young LLP’s Government Practice. They are the authors of What Government Does: How Political Executives Manage.