Avoiding a Government of Lawyers and Former Congressional Staffers

The next president must look beyond the usual suspects to put together a truly diverse administration.

The two presumptive presidential candidates are now vetting vice presidential candidates. Putting together an entire administration is not too far off. Based on our experience over the last seven years in interviewing 65 top level political executives in the Obama Administration, we gained insights about the professional experiences of those we interviewed. We discussed how their prior positions prepared them for their current position. In particular, we looked for management experience that would prepare them to be effective political executives managing large government organizations.

Based on our interviews and observations over the years, we found that the political positions are often filled by people with little relevant managerial experience:

Campaign staff. A major challenge facing all campaigns is placing their loyal workers after the campaign ends. Some campaign staff members end up – appropriately for the most part – in the White House. Many campaign skills are indeed applicable to the “perpetual campaign” of the White House today with its ongoing outreach to the public. For many jobs, there is a problem, however, in transferring the skills of campaigning to the skills of governing. Managing in government requires managerial skills, which potential appointees may not have gained on the campaign trial. Thus, many campaign personnel have had a difficult time in making the transition from campaign to governing. The challenge of a presidential campaign is to keep expectations low among staff that they will be moving into a management position in Washington as part of a new administration.

Congressional staff. Another traditional “feeder” group into a new administration has been congressional staff members, usually from the ranks of committee staff who have expertise about the agencies in which they either had authorization, appropriation, or oversight responsibility. In many ways, it makes sense to recruit these staff members (they have indeed proved their loyalty to the party in power) to serve in the agency in which they are most familiar. While their skills are indeed transferable on an expertise basis, many congressional staff often lack managerial experience.  Serving as majority or minority staff director does build some management experience but that experience may not be adequate preparation for the challenges of managing in a large organization. The scope and size of a government organization are much larger than those of a committee staff. In managing a congressional committee, one can rely on one-to-one managerial skills—something not easily done in a large government organization. The challenge of a new administration is matching the experience of former congressional staffs to an appropriate job in an agency, such as placing them in offices of congressional relations where their professional contacts and experience can be invaluable. For the most part, placing them in managerial positions is a riskier proposition.

A major advantage of the legal profession is that lawyers can relatively easily move in and out of government. They can leave and return to the legal professional without much disruption to their career. In fact, time in government will generally enhance the professional credibility of a lawyer. The caution here is where to place these very smart “in and outers.” While their professional career has indeed prepared them to serve in legal positions in government, problems often arise when they are placed in senior managerial positions. Unless one has been the managing partner of a large law firm, lawyers usually work in small teams with colleagues and have little or no organizational management responsibility. In contrast, managing in government requires working in large, hierarchical, bureaucratic organizations for which their legal careers have usually not prepared them. Placing lawyers in significant management positions can also be risky.

Beyond the Usual Suspects: Achieving Diversity

By diversity, we mean putting together an administration of different career experiences and background, including relevant managerial experience. One does not want a government comprised overwhelmingly of lawyers or former congressional staffers. This diversity of experiences would include managerial experience at different levels of government and in different sectors. Based on our observations and experience over the years, we believe that following sources of talent have been underrepresented in previous administrations. The next administration can change that.

State government. While every administration has some political executives, including cabinet secretaries, from state government, the numbers of high-level executives with state government experience continues to be small. State government experience, however, clearly provides transferable skills and knowledge of best public sector practices. During his tenure as head of the Arizona Department of Transportation, Victor Mendez (now Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary) received much praise for overseeing the building of a Regional Freeway System in the Phoenix area six years ahead of schedule. As Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, Mendez developed the Every Day Counts program, which emphasized innovation in dramatically speeding up the completion of transportation projects. In addition to the transfer of knowledge, state government officials also can bring highly relevant managerial experience to the federal government.

Private sector. While there are often calls for government to be “more like business,” the number of political executives from the private sector varies from administration to administration. In many ways, managing in a large business is very much like managing in a large government organization – hierarchical and bureaucratic as noted earlier. (The transition for an individual from a small entrepreneurial start-up is likely to be more difficult than from a large business.) Individuals who have served in both large government organizations and large businesses bring a unique perspective to their positions, including the ability to compare organizations. After assuming his position as Chief Operating Officer of the Office of Federal Student Aid, James Runcie observed, “I thought the agency did not compare well to the private sector in regard to customer service. I had come from the private sector . . . Things are moving fast in the private sector, especially in areas like call centers.”

Career service and military. Another overlooked sector is the government itself. On the civilian side of government, there are many outstanding career Deputy Administrators who have also served as Acting Administrators. In 2009, the Obama Administration nominated Patrick Gallagher to serve as director of the National Institutes of Standard and Technology after he served for 13 months as acting director. Gallagher subsequently served as acting deputy secretary of the Commerce Department.

There are also many talented individuals in law enforcement agencies whose skills are transferable to other agencies. In 2010, the Obama Administration selected John Pistole, former career number two at the FBI, to serve as administrator of the Transportation Security Administration. On the military side, there are many talented flag officers with much relevant experience. The George W. Bush Administration selected Adm. James Loy to serve as deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security after he retired as commandant of the Coast Guard. Gallagher, Pistole and Loy all had managerial experience in large organizations that fully equipped them to take on challenging positions in other agencies.

There are clearly many talented people all over the United States who can contribute to the success of the next administration. The challenge will be to look beyond the usual suspects to find individuals from sectors traditionally underrepresented among senior political appointees.

Paul R. Lawrence is a principal in the Government and Public Sector practice of Ernst & Young LLP. His e-mail: paul.lawrence@ey.com. Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His email: mark.abramson@thoughtleadershipinc.com. They are authors of the forthcoming book Succeeding as a Political Executive: 50 Insights from Experience (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).