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Here Come the New Appointees: 6 Ways to Smooth the Transition

Advice on managing your relationship with the incoming political bosses.

The next wave of political appointees is almost at the gates. In just three months, roughly 3,000 of them will begin to assume their new roles. Between an onerous vetting process, controversy about past actions and statements, and a sometimes reluctant Senate (about 550 positions—way too many—require confirmation), it typically takes almost a year for the transition period to end.

A Donald Trump victory would undoubtedly mean immediate housecleaning of all appointees, but a Hillary Clinton administration could bring big change, too. During the 1989 transition, President Bush replaced about two-thirds of President Reagan’s appointees—often to their surprise. The Obama administration already includes many Clinton loyalists, particularly in economic roles, but history suggests that their holdovers are likely to accept new positions.

This massive turnover invariably stresses senior career executives. These officials tend to have worked their way up the ladder by paying attention to detail and by always being ready to advise, and then follow, their political supervisors. For months, they may not know who will be joining their agency, and even then the newcomers’ agendas may be difficult to discern.  

Despite a common perception to the contrary by appointees, civil servants tend to have a strong vested interest in enabling the success of their new bosses. Prestige, resources and promotions are all at stake. No career employee wants to be embarrassed by the likes of a Michael Brown at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

How can anxious civil servants avoid unnecessary battles and enable the success of the new arrivals? We offer six suggestions:

First, work hard to understand the entire new team so you can anticipate its needs. This task used to be far more demanding and risky than it is today; with social media and internet searches, it’s usually easy to learn about the background, political goals and temperament of the new team. If appointees have served in previous administrations, you surely can find people you trust who can discreetly talk to you about foibles that may not be part of the public record.

Second, don’t be passive. As soon as you have official notice about a new appointee, congratulate them, offer assistance, and ask about their preferences in terms of process (e.g., all paper, one-on-one briefings, small group briefings). Asking for guidance is an important symbolic start to a relationship in addition to being the most efficient way to get moving.

Third, in the beginning, grade on a curve unless there is an ethical problem. Some appointees will know a lot about your agency, but some will not. Some will understand agency culture, and others will make comments they eventually will regret. Accept that the education process will be longer for some of the new people.

Fourth, as soon as the new appointees have digested their briefing books, look for opportunities to ask them about their goals. Make suggestions that will help the appointees achieve those aims. Be careful about seeming dismissive. Avoid sentences like “Congress won’t pass that” and use sentences more like this: “That will probably be a push with Congress, so we’ll need to develop a strategy for getting as much as we can.”

Fifth, if the transition is making you miserable, don’t dig in out of spite, frustration or inertia. The best and the worst appointees tend to stay the longest; the former because they are dedicated to the mission, the latter because they have no comparable options. If you suffering under toxic appointees, don’t hesitate to find a place out of the limelight within your agency or a new challenge in another agency.

Sixth, if a transition is a largely new experience for you, remember to stay open-minded and to nurture an ongoing dialogue. Many of the most successful initiatives in recent history, such as Bill Clinton-Newt Gingrich procurement reforms, the Food and Drug Administration’s first accelerated drug approval regulations, and the Social Security Administration’s compassionate allowance system for disability applicants, faced misplaced initial resistance from the civil service.

Finally, remember Rahm Emanuel’s immortal words: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” In our democratic system, transitions are unsettling, but the greatest opportunity to make meaningful improvements will come before your environment achieves a new equilibrium after the transition.

Michael Astrue is a former Social Security commissioner who has served in senior roles during four federal administrations and participated in both presidential and gubernatorial transitions. Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the University of Arkansas, and served in the federal government in the 1990s.

Photo: Flickr user takomabibelot