The Deputy Secretary: Linchpin to Making Government Work

Sixteen former deputy secretaries share insights about a critical—but often ambiguous—job.


To: All Biden Administration Deputy Secretary-Designates 

From: Mark Abramson and Paul Lawrence 

Subject: Succeeding in Your Role as Deputy Secretary

Congratulations on your nomination. During the Obama administration, we had the unique opportunity to interview 16 deputy secretaries. We asked each about their experiences, how they defined their position, and how they measured their success. They shared insights we think are still relevant and want to share them with you. 

While there was substantial agreement on the roles played by deputy secretaries, several emphasized the ambiguity of the position. After two years in office, one told us, “the job of the Deputy Secretary is still a little unclear to me.” While the position is often dependent on the relationship with the secretary, there was agreement that it consisted of several primary and secondary roles. Success was defined as understanding those roles, developing an effective working relationship with the secretary, and helping achieve the administration’s goals. 

Primary Roles 

Serve as the department’s chief operating officer. The role of a department COO is clear. One deputy secretary reported, “I work on the infrastructure of the department. There are many actionable items and a bunch of moving parts. We need to work on many fronts.” These fronts include working on the culture of the organization, as well as focusing on the people. 

It’s not just your agency’s bureaucracy you’ll be engaged with. Deputy secretaries also spend time on interagency committees, including the President’s Management Council. In describing the COO role, one said, “My job is really a T-shape as I do a lot of collaboration across government with other agencies. It helps that I have a network of people I know across government. Then my job goes straight down the bureaucracy.”

The official designation of COO responsibilities dates back to an October 1993 memorandum from President Clinton establishing the President’s Management Council and asking each department to designate a chief operating officer. With a few exceptions, departments designated the deputy secretary as COO. In 2010, Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, which codified the COO role into law. The law, signed by President Obama, states that the COO shall be responsible for improving the management and performance of the organization and “achieving the mission and goals of the agency through the use of performance planning, measurement, analysis, regular assessment of progress, and use of performance information.” 

Lead departmental initiatives. When there is a high-priority initiative, the secretary often asks the deputy secretary to take the lead. Such initiatives may originate with the department or the White House. For example, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act quickly became a top priority for the Obama administration, and deputy secretaries in all departments assumed some responsibility for oversight of the law’s implementation.

Serve as a liaison to stakeholders. Many deputy secretaries have been selected because of their relationships to specific stakeholder groups. That puts them in a position to serve as the key liaison between their department and that community. This responsibility often entails giving speeches to those stakeholder groups and spending time on the road. One deputy secretary reported, “When I came in, I thought I would just be doing management. But the secretary wanted me to do more public outreach. So I ended up with a mixed portfolio. Part of my time was on public policy. Part of it was interfacing with the public. The rest of my time was on management.”

Secondary Roles 

Serve as a Convener. Several of the deputy secretaries emphasized their role as “convener” of key decision-makers within their own departments, and often key leaders from outside their department. “The office of the secretary,” said David Hayes, former Interior deputy secretary, “is the only place where everything comes together. Traditionally, the agencies have tended to work alone in the Department of the Interior. Integration can only happen when the secretary, deputy secretary, and assistant secretaries get involved.”

In describing his role at the Health and Human Services Department, former deputy secretary Bill Corr also emphasizes the importance of bringing people together to develop solutions and ensure continuous momentum. Corr said, “One key aspect of my job is to get the right people in the room, determine the decisions that need to be made and ensure that we not lose our focus on our goals.”

Serve as crisis manager. The deputy secretary often assumes the role of crisis manager. Corr noted, “A major difference between my tenure in the Obama Administration and my time at HHS in the Clinton Administration is that the department now has a critical emergency preparedness role. We now have emergency response capabilities for natural and man-made disasters that we did not have the first time I was here.” During Corr’s tenure, HHS confronted a series of emergencies during its first term: the H1N1 swine flu crisis, the Haitian earthquake, the Japanese tsunami, and the [Deepwater Horizon] oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hayes also faced a crisis at Interior: “I was the operations lead for the department on the Gulf oil spill,” Hayes says. “I spent every day—as did much of our team—from April 2010 to September 2010 on the oil spill … We were also involved in the response, the cleanup phase. We negotiated with BP every step of the way. I am proud of what we did.”

Serve as a policy advisor. Because of their extensive careers inside and outside government, deputy secretaries generally bring a great deal of policy expertise and experience to their positions. This makes it natural for deputy secretaries to expect to play a policy role in the department. Based on our interviews, the policy role varies dramatically from department to department. In some cases, the deputy secretary may be asked by the secretary to participate in the policy making process on a specific issue because of his or her expertise in that area. In other cases, a deputy secretary may be thrust into a policy making role because of the need for a strong individual to lead the policy making process. One deputy secretary told us, “I had to step into the policy development and policy agenda-setting process. I ended up driving the policy process. So I had to do two and a half jobs for a while. This isn’t the regular job of the deputy secretary.”

Serve as an alter ego for the secretary. One deputy secretary described this function this way: “My major role is backing up the secretary. We want to make sure that we make the best use of his time. I’m the back stop. I’m available across the board on many issues. Your job [as deputy secretary] is to serve the secretary in whatever capacity he or she desires. I support the secretary and focus on what is important to him. That has been my view from the first day I was here.” This role includes filling in for the secretary when he or she is unavailable to attend key government meetings and serving as acting secretary when necessary. As one deputy secretary put it, “I have to be here when the Secretary is out.”

Several Deputy Secretaries noted that there was an ebb and flow between various roles over the course of his or her tenure. One remarked, “We started out on management and we spent a lot of time on that during our first year. That was very important. Then the secretary asked me to play a greater role in another area. There are also the unexpected events which nobody can predict. So you must learn to live with this ebb and flow, and you have to be ready to respond to unanticipated events.”

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. Paul R. Lawrence is the former under secretary for benefits at the Veterans Affairs Department. This article is adapted from their book Paths to Making a Difference: Leading in Government. Email them at and