Memo to Next Administration: Rely on and Respect the Government’s Senior Executives

New handbook from senior executives group aims to help new political appointees cultivate a successful relationship with career leaders.

The incoming Trump administration should consider placing top senior executives in jobs typically held by political appointees, and think about slashing the number of overall appointed positions, the association representing senior executives recommended on Thursday.

The Senior Executives Association, which just published a new handbook designed to help political appointees navigate the transition and understand the government’s top cadre of career executives, said placing senior executives in jobs like deputy secretary or assistant secretary for administration can provide continuity of leadership during the transition, and enable the new administration to accomplish its management agenda over the long term. As it stands now, “administrations are not gaining the benefit they might from seasoned, accomplished career executives who know how to get agendas accomplished,” the handbook stated. The high turnover among political appointees also can derail an administration’s accomplishments and make it difficult to implement and sustain an agenda, the analysis stated.

The proliferation of political appointments over the years  -- the number of such jobs has multiplied from about 300 in the 1960s to now nearly 4,000 – has “moved many career executives further and further from political leadership, diminishing their autonomy, their opportunities and their effectiveness,” the handbook said. “Extra layers also minimize the direct influence the most senior political appointees can have on the careerists who carry out their agendas.”

The political “layering” has affected program management, according to the handbook, which cited an analysis of the Bush administration’s Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) from David Lewis of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. In part, Lewis found that programs administered by political appointees received lower scores than those run by career civil servants.

SEA’s handbook, similar to its guide on the presidential transition for federal career executives, also provided a list of “do's” and “don’ts” for appointees as they cultivate successful working relationships with career executives, and a primer on the SES pay and performance system. “Most incoming administrations don’t have a great deal of familiarity with the federal government and the executive branch,” said SEA President Bill Valdez during a Nov. 9 interview with Government Executive. The goal of the handbook is to help appointees hit the ground running and succeed in what is a new and often stressful environment -- and senior executives need to offer their cooperation and support, Valdez said.

“Irrespective of the policy or management goals of the administration generally, or of the agencies for which they will work, the success of individual political appointees will depend very much on the relationships they develop with the career federal executives who will work for them,” the handbook said, echoing the views of appointees from past Republican and Democratic administrations.

Among the advice for political appointees in the handbook, SEA recommended developing open and honest communication; having a realistic agenda; and keeping in mind that “what you say will be taken very literally.” The association also advised incoming appointees not to “assume that career executives are less able or hardworking than their counterparts in the private sector,” or to hold senior executives responsible for the previous administration’s policies. Another tip: Don’t “misread career executives’ laying out the possibilities and providing the options as a sign that they are ‘not on the team.’ ”