While Biden’s Cabinet Is Important, Watch the Sub-Cabinet
The skills and background needed for managerial positions are significantly different than those for policy positions.
While much of Washington is focused on President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet nominees, smart observers are paying as much attention to the selection of the sub-cabinet—the deputy secretaries, agency heads and assistant secretaries. The success of the Biden administration will rest heavily on these selections and on the transition team’s ability to match the right person with the right position. All of the candidates will likely be qualified; the challenge will be finding the person with the best skill set for each position.
During the Obama Administration, I had the unique opportunity to interview 65 members of the Obama sub-cabinet. Many were interviewed three times during their tenure to better understand their learning curve in real time.
Based on the interviews, transitions teams should be asking two key questions about each sub-cabinet position to be filled: Is it a policy or management position? If it is a management position, what type of organization is it?
Policy v. Management
A key first step is determining whether the predominant activity of the position is making policy or managing an organization. While those running organizations are frequently involved in policy-making, the skills and background needed for managerial positions are significantly different than those in policy positions.
There is an important distinction between policy jobs and management jobs. While many come to Washington to “do policy,” much of agencies’ work is about executing—not making—policy. The concepts of a “policy person” and a “managerial person” are archetypes that can be used in sorting candidates for the right job. A policy person is clearly appropriate for the position of Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Services. Based on observations over the years, a “managerial” person faces a high probability of being frustrated by “all the talking and debating” in a policy job.
Conversely, a policy person may find a “managerial” position frustrating. Managers, in contrast, find great satisfaction in serving in agencies where there are clear objectives and performance data. As William Taggart, former chief operating officer at the Education Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid put it, “There are two separate sets of skills—the implementers are not the policy folks, and the policy makers are not implementers.”
Maurice Jones, former deputy secretary of the Housing and Urban Development Department, came to a similar conclusion. Jones says, “The problem is that people don’t come to the federal government to do execution … You can have the greatest, most innovative policies ever, but without execution, these policies can’t succeed.”
If the position is a management position, what type of organization is it? It is important to distinguish between the following types of agencies:
- Production agencies: These have clear deliverables to the public, such as providing student loans, veterans’ benefits, and transportation security.
- Regulatory agencies: These regulate the nation’s safety and health and include agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
- Scientific agencies: These conduct the nation’s research and development and include agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
One of the crucial tasks for the Biden transition team is determining the set of experiences most needed in a specific position at a specific point in time. Most candidates will have distinguished professional careers and impressive educational credentials. But the key question is whether an individual has the right set of experiences for a specific job at the point in time when she or he is selected.
Consider the White House decision in 1998 to seek a “manager” as the head of the Internal Revenue Service. Throughout its previous history, the IRS had always had a distinguished tax lawyer as its head. In 1998, a decision was made to look for a business executive who would be able to manage the information technology challenges then facing the IRS; Charles Rossotti was selected. The right set of experiences had changed for the IRS. In 2013, President Obama nominated another individual with extensive business experience, John Koskinen, to serve as IRS commissioner.
Another example of the White House deciding on a new set of desired experiences for a position was the selection of Michael Bromwich to take over the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. Instead of seeking an individual with the traditional set of energy and natural resources experience for MMS, a decision was made to recruit an executive with crisis management and turnaround skills. Additionally, at that point in the history of MMS, it was appropriate (and perhaps necessary) to select an individual who had not had previous experience with the energy industry.
During the Trump administration, many key sub-cabinet positions were vacant for much of the administration. It is thus even more crucial that the Biden administration find the right people for the right job and move quickly toward their nomination and confirmation. There is no shortage of qualified candidates; the challenge is putting them in the “right” position.
Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. This article is adapted from Succeeding as a Political Executive (with Paul R. Lawrence). His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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