6 Ways New Appointees Can Work Effectively With Career Federal Employees

Advice from a former Obama administration official on how to smooth the transition.

Congratulations to Team Biden for winning the election. But that was the easy part. Now they  have to fill thousands of political appointment vacancies and run the machine of government. This is the fun part. I experienced it over four years in the Obama White House and State Department. For many appointees, this will be the best and most fulfilling job you’ll ever have.

Turning over an organization’s leadership team every four to eight years is highly disruptive and wildly inefficient. How would we collectively react if a massive corporation like Walmart, Amazon, or ExxonMobil operated like this? How about if you created a mega-organization by adding together the 18 largest companies in the United States by revenue? That’s how big the federal government is.

It’s no secret that the relationship between political appointees and career employees can be fraught with tension, distrust and resentment. It doesn’t have to be. Here are six ways to smooth a new administration’s transition.

Lead by Listening

As an incoming appointee, don’t act like the smartest person in the room. Lead by listening and collaborating, not by talking and commanding. On the other hand, civil servants shouldn’t immediately dismiss outside ideas because they were tried once, are against some decades-old operating manual, or because “that’s not how we do things.” The forced marriage of these two groups only succeeds when they mutually and respectfully listen to each other.

Elevate the Talented

Many appointees will be handed the reins to an organization with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of employees. Meet as many as you can and make your own assessment as to their abilities. Relying on office directors, branch chiefs and other managers’ opinions risks perpetuating existing inefficiencies or leaving talented employees buried under layers of middle management. A leader is only as good as the collective abilities of the group they lead. Find the pockets of hidden talent that always exist. Elevate them and enable them to do great things.

Ignore the Malcontents

A subset of your team is thrilled you’re there. On the other end of the spectrum are those that oppose you purely because of the role you’re filling. You don’t need to convince either group, because the former is already behind you, and you’ll never win over the latter. Then there’s the large tranche of people in the middle. They will determine the fate of your initiatives. They’re also more likely to be influenced by their peers than directly by you.

I had subordinates agree with me in leadership meetings, only to turn around and publicly deride my decisions in front of the rest of the staff. One had the audacity to tell me, “I’ve seen people like you come and go, so I’ll just wait you out.” I guess they get points for brutal honesty. Don’t let the malcontents poison the well through their own subversive influence campaigns. Reduce their responsibilities and impact on initiatives critical to your agency’s success. Furthermore, publicly laud and amplify the good work of your supporters, encouraging them to proselytize on your behalf.

Understand Motivations

Not everyone wants to make things better. At least, not the version of better pushed by political appointee interlopers such as yourself. You’ll work with people who have risen through the ranks over decades precisely so they can preside over a fiefdom of thousands of employees and a budget in the billions. Their professional self-worth is wrapped up in those massive numbers. You want to make things more efficient by shrinking the team and cutting the budget?  Understand their motivations and that your efforts may be an assault on their career-long objectives. 

Beware of IT

Yes, government technology is notoriously bad. When the Obama administration started, the White House still had computers with disk drives. During my time at the State Department, the IT budget was $22,000 per employee per year. But most employees were still on clunky desktops, running outdated software. Foreign service officers were required to burn their email archives on DVDs to migrate data when transferring posts. When I left the department in 2016, we were only piloting wifi in a limited fashion. Technology only gets better when the political leadership, up to the secretary, makes it a priority.

Get to Yes

In the private sector you can try new things until you’re told you can’t. In the public sector you can’t do something new until you’re told you can. Understanding this mindset sheds light on a lot of the frustrations you will feel pushing through changes. At the State Department, we had the Foreign Affairs Manual and the Foreign Affairs Handbook, which dictated everything from mail delivery to labor relations to IT policies. Some of the regulations were nearly 20 years old. Understand the operating principles of your agency and find people in the organization who can show you the route to success. If you ask enough questions, there is always a path to yes.

Tom Cochran is a partner at 720 Strategies, a Washington-based public relations firm. He served as an Obama administration political appointee overseeing digital transformation efforts at the White House and State Department.