Bridging the Gap Between Political Appointees and Civil Servants

The chasm between appointees and career staff often leads to dysfunction. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Behind the headlines generated by the Senate health bill, the Russia investigation and looming debates over taxes and infrastructure plans, the work of government goes on. Social Security checks go out. National Park Service rangers continue to give tours at our parks and historic sites. And Transportation Security Administration inspectors still ensure that liquids go into your checked luggage. All this goes on largely without political direction from the Trump Administration, since so many of its nominees have yet to be named or confirmed by the Senate. According to the Political Appointee Tracker developed by the Partnership for Public Service and the Washington Post, Trump has yet to even nominate anyone to fill 354 of 577 key positions, and only 117 nominees have been confirmed to date. Another 106 await Senate action. This performance lags well behind that of Trump’s four immediate predecessors.  

These new political appointees will feel pressure to take charge quickly to make up for lost time. They will need to win over their respective agencies and make progress against the President’s agenda. In more than two decades of service in the executive branch under four different administrations, I always admired political appointees with superb leadership and management skills and on the other side, the career civil servants with the political savvy to succeed under either political party. The chasm between the two worlds often leads to agency dysfunction, low morale and poor outcomes. As President Trump’s appointees settle into their new positions, what can be done to bridge the gap? Both sides need to do a better job of understanding the other's mindset, strengths and weaknesses.

Here are some familiar caricatures that I learned to recognize on sight.  

The Commissar. This political appointee is in charge of enforcing fidelity to the cause, ideology and advancement of the party and personalities in power.  Many conversations end in a variant of “It’s my way or the highway.”

The Hack. Easy to spot, this one’s sole interest is their own advancement and will generally approach relationships like Kleenex: dispose after use. The good news is that s/he will usually move on before too much damage is done.  

The Closer. This political is your ace in the hole. The closer possesses the juice, access and personality to work the bureaucracy or win a tough inter-agency dispute. He or she usually wins over the career staff when s/he puts the agency’s mission over personal advancement and everyone wins.  

The Wonk. These are political appointees who actively sought the position in an honest effort to advance the work of the department or agency. The wonk seeks alignment between prevailing policy preferences and the agency’s core mission, usually making allies and actively nurturing relationships with career staff with the expertise and insider know-how to advance the mission.

The Visionary. When the stars align, the visionary meets a bureaucracy that’s ready for change. The result can be dramatic turnaround of a once troubled department. The successful visionary will seek alignment of mission and talent, inspire passion in the workforce and build trust that wins over the bureaucracy.

So how do political appointees view career civil servants? A number of ways:   

The Troll. This is the scourge of the new appointee – the career staffer with the reflexive, “we’re already doing that” or “we tried and Congress hated it.” Or, “there’s no money, no  staff, no etc.”  Nothing does more to confirm the political appointee’s mistrust than when trolls rule the ranks.  

The Turtle. The turtle isn’t necessarily a bad sort. Bombarded by new and conflicting initiatives, unclear guidance and inexperienced or toxic leadership, the turtle withdraws into his shell and waits for better times. Turtles adopt the “Weeby” attitude, because they know that at the end of the administration, “weeby here, you be gone.”  

The Maven. The true government subject matter expert, the maven has spent decades in the field and is a treasure trove of expertise and institutional knowledge that the political overlooks at his own peril. There are two types of maven. There’s the lone wolf who would just as soon be left alone to pursue his work. And then there’s the expert with a passion for public service who brings credibility and quality work to the appointees’ agenda. This is the one the shrewd political will court. Mavens also have their own networks of experts and mentees that can be pulled in by the political who has the smarts to seize the opportunity.

The Translator. This is the career employee who has an ear for the language, message and attitudes of the sitting administration (though not necessarily agreeing with it). Generally, this person is a political junkie who followed the campaign and knows the pedigrees of the players on both sides of the political divide. When “covfefe” is required, the translator can provide both the context for the latest initiative as well as the winning turn of phrase that conveys the career staff’s views in a language that can win over balky political appointees.  

The Fixer. The fixer is the seasoned federal manager or senior expert (in law, procurement or human resources, etc.) whose experience is critical when the problems are complex and require technical knowledge and bureaucratic savvy to solve. These are the career players that devise the legislative fix or the new programmatic approach or the new hiring mechanism that can make or break a high-profile initiative. You want one of these in the room.  

With all of these characters, how can committed public servants—regardless of their political persuasion or their status as career staff or appointees—come together for better policy outcomes? A leap of faith may be necessary. Specifically:

Leap No. 1 (for appointees): Seek out the mavens. Politicals are well-advised to mine the halls of the bureaucracy for the true federal experts whose deep knowledge and experience often go overlooked or ignored in the rush to do something different. Take the time to learn about past successes and failures and what are easy missteps to avoid in planning a new initiative.

Leap No. 1 (for career staff): Put your best fixer forward. This federal manager will have experience translating the political needs of appointees into tangible outcomes from the bureaucracy. With enough expertise and savvy, the fixer will counsel the political team to do “more rowing and less steering,” i.e get them to articulate the desired outcomes while the fixers work with the career staff to make it happen.

Leap No. 2 (for appointees): Don’t Ignore the trolls. Engage them. Trolls weren’t necessary always trolls.  Some got that way by listening to leadership platitudes about “doing more with less” and “working smarter not harder” without anyone willing to recognize the real-world constraints they face. Listen with empathy and have a true dialog. This will reveal the legislative, regulatory, budget and policy constraints that could get in the way of delivering results and will probably yield a suggestion or two about how to address them.

Leap No. 2 (for career staff): Make the political calendar work for you. The disconnect between the long-term and embedded nature of the problems we face and the insanely short-term nature of the political calendar is an enduring challenge to good public policy. Instead of lamenting this fact, the career staff needs to understand the best time to float new ideas, the value of engaging new actors, the time to salute smartly. It’s vital to understand the importance of quick wins in any long-term effort. This sensitivity to the political needs of the administration will make the relationship easier.  

Leap No. 3: Play fair. Fairness, integrity, competence and predictability are the bedrock behaviors for promoting organizational trust. Trust failures occur when there is a disconnect or dysfunction between an organization’s mission or core values and leadership behavior. Leaders of both teams need to evaluate their behaviors to see that they act in ways that promote rather than undermine trust across the gap.   

Leap No. 4: Have the conversation. Leaders on both sides need to figure out how to discuss issues in a safe space where political leadership can clearly articulate their needs and expectations as well as indicate what they don’t know and where they need help. Career folks need to listen anew and think how they might reframe old and new problems to release the talents and mitigate the constraints of the bureaucracy.  

These leaps of faith don’t guarantee and end to the friction between the players. But as new leadership takes shape, bridging the gap will lay the foundation for long-term success.

Neil A. Levine is the former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Center of Excellence for on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance. He also taught Strategic Leadership at the Eisenhower School of the National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.