Welcome to Washington. Are You Ready to Lead?

The new appointee’s guide to getting things done.

With the advent of the Trump administration in 2017, a new set of leaders will arrive in federal offices across the nation. The government they will lead has changed in many ways from the one the Obama administration inherited in 2009.

The challenges for political appointees are multifaceted. Those who are new to government will find a very different world from the private and nonprofit sectors, and those returning will find a far different federal landscape. Many stakeholders, including members of Congress, will be interested in every action new appointees take. Not to mention the challenge of managing large organizations. If Cabinet departments were listed in the Fortune 500, these executives would occupy slots in the top 20.

In 2009, the IBM Center for the Business of Government released Getting It Done: A Guide for Government Executives, aimed at new leaders—especially political appointees. The 2017 edition of Getting It Done addresses a number of critical changes they will face.

As new political executives navigate the current political environment in Washington, the waters are likely to be turbulent. The guide contains the following advice to help them hit the ground running.

Seven To-Dos

  • Before confirmation, be careful. There is likely to be a time lag—sometimes long—between nomination and confirmation. During this period, learn as much about your agency as possible. Be careful to avoid making commitments or decisions prior to being officially confirmed.
  • Learn how things work. Now that you’ve done the background research on your agency, devote your early days in office to learning more about your customers, programs, and any flashpoints that may cause problems down the road.
  • Act quickly. Find out which issues need quick action and which require further study. You will learn much from talking with your staff and stakeholders about how your agency is performing and what needs to be done right away.
  • Develop a vision and a focused agenda. These will be crucial to your success in Washington. You will need to both communicate the vision and convey a sense of urgency to get it done.
  • Assemble your leadership team. A key ingredient to your success will be putting together a joint political and career team. Don’t view your staff as two distinct camps. Avoid “political appointees only” meetings. Your job is to get these two groups working together as one management team committed to your vision and your agency’s goals.
  • Deliver results. Once you have set the agenda and a good leadership team, there will be many distractions. Delivering on promises not only will take discipline, but also a set of decision-making and operational processes. Leverage existing processes and networks where possible. Ensure that day-to-day operations are effective, but don’t try to manage them yourself or you’ll quickly lose perspective. Staying focused on measurable results makes it easier to make your case with stakeholders.
  • Manage your environment. All organizations—public and private—have customers and a complex environment, but many say government is harder because there are so many stakeholders. The key is to satisfy all of them, at least to a large extent. Failure to work effectively with any one group can lessen your chances of success and possibly shorten your tenure.

Know Your Stakeholders

There are 14 stakeholder groups you will most frequently encounter while in government. They fall into four clusters: bosses, colleagues, constituencies and overseers. While some groups might appear in two categories (Congress is your boss and oversees your organization), this framework is useful to understanding your relationship with each one.

Your Bosses

It is often said that one of the major differences between the public and private sectors is that you have many bosses in government. The notion that you have 535 bosses in Congress, might be slightly overstated, but there is much truth to it. In Washington, any one of those lawmakers, or their 30,000 staffers, can make your life easier by supporting your agency or more difficult by passing a directive or legislation placing restrictions on it.

Then there is the White House, where there are three distinct parts on which your job literally depends. First, there is the Executive Office of the President. While you will see the president infrequently, you will often encounter a variety of special assistants, each of whom works in a different White House office. They can be enormously helpful and supportive, once you develop a good working relationship with them.

Second, there are three White House Policy Councils (the National Security Council, Domestic Policy Council and National Economic Council). These panels have become increasingly important as the White House has assumed a greater leadership and coordinating role in new policy initiatives.

Third, but not least, is the Office of Management and Budget, which coordinates policy development and decides how much funding your agency can request from Congress. OMB will be involved in many other aspects of your position as well, such as reviewing proposed legislation or your testimony to Congress, and overseeing regulations you might propose. As in all organizations, working with your bosses is essential to your success.

Your Colleagues

In government, you cannot overestimate the importance of your colleagues. There are likely to be few instances in which you and your agency can make a decision by yourselves, even after consultation with your bosses. More common is the scenario in which your bosses will actively seek the opinion and concurrence of your colleagues in other agencies.

You should set the right tone by creating the expectation that your management team will work closely with other departments and agencies. Participate actively on interagency councils that invite you to become a member. But in this instance you must assume a different role. Instead of being a boss, you become a peer and colleague working on governmentwide issues.

While it has an oversight function, the Office of Personnel Management falls in the colleague grouping as well. Reach out to OPM to gain human capital flexibilities that can help you accomplish your agency’s mission.

Your Constituencies

Each agency will have its own unique set of constituencies. Your staff will be able to describe these groups, and you will soon be meeting with them to get acquainted and to begin building effective partnerships.

But here are four cross-cutting sets of constituencies:

  • Citizens. Some citizens will be your customers. You should meet with those customers to assess their satisfaction with your agency and determine whether the delivery of services can be improved. Citizens also are the ultimate bosses and have a major stake in the government’s policies and programs. Use social media and other new tools to engage citizens on new initiatives you are considering.
  • Unions. If your agency is represented by one or more unions, develop a collaborative working relationship with them.
  • State, local, and tribal governments. Federal spending will become much tighter in future years. As a consequence, government leaders will need to find new ways to accomplish national objectives through partnerships with states, localities and nonprofit organizations.
  • Interest groups and associations. You will quickly get to know the organizations interested in your agency. These groups are a valuable information resource. There will clearly be differences of opinion. The key to a successful relationship will not be agreement on all issues, but instead your ability to create an ongoing dialogue and to maintain a constant exchange of information between your agency and these organizations.

Your Overseers

Oversight organizations are a fact of life in government. Ongoing scrutiny of how public funds are spent will become a daily part of your life. It is all too easy to fall into an adversarial relationship with your overseers, but you should work hard to develop an effective working relationship with them.

The most well-known oversight, or watchdog, organization is the Government Accountability Office. Your staff will be busy working with GAO on reviews underway at your agency. Use information in prior and ongoing GAO studies to identify problem areas that your agency will need to work on and that Congress is likely to ask you about.

Another watchdog organization you will encounter is the independent Office of the Inspector General at your department or agency. Past relationships between IGs and agency heads have ranged from outright hostility to cooperative partnerships. Like GAO, IGs can identify problem areas that your agency needs to focus on.

You also will encounter the media. Washington media organizations are unique. You will have an able press staff to assist you in both your proactive and reactive relationships with the media. Like all the stakeholders, the media can assist you greatly in getting your message out and communicating your vision to those inside and outside of government. Time spent with the media will be a good investment.

New government leaders have a unique opportunity to make a positive difference for the nation. The 2017 edition of Getting It Done could prove useful in helping them achieve that goal.