After Confirmation: The Golden Hour for Political Appointees
What senior leaders should expect and how they can make the most of the opportunity they’ve been given.
With confirmation hearings underway across the Capitol, the new administration is slowly filling out the top ranks of federal agencies. For President Biden’s nominees now arriving on the job, this is when the challenge of governing begins. Based on our interviews with 65 former Obama administration officials, we offer some insight on how political appointees can get an effective start to the job.
Be ready to go to Washington on short notice. Sometimes the Senate has a clear schedule for confirming political appointees, but more frequently prospective nominees are caught off guard when a confirmation vote takes place. Voting often happens prior to the Senate going on a recess. Several of our interviewees were caught by surprise, in some cases after having waited for several months for a confirmation vote.
David Kappos, former director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, recalled, “The whole confirmation process places heavy demands on political appointees … I was confirmed at 11:00 a.m. on a Friday and I was supposed to start work on the following Monday. I had to leave my family on short notice. There was no time to plan on where to stay. But I managed to get to D.C., find a hotel, and start on that Tuesday.”
Don’t expect the red carpet—or a nice office. Some political appointees might expect a royal welcome upon arrival. Former Chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission Inez Tenenbaum’s experience was different. “The physical office space was a real mess,” recalled Tenenbaum. “The walls had not been painted. I found old furniture in my office that needed replacing. The building itself was run down. It was a pretty dreary place. We had very few supplies, and we also had no business cards or stationery. At the start, I just had one staff member who I brought with me from South Carolina. We have since improved the physical look of the building and created standard operating procedures.”
Rhea Suh, former assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the Interior Department, had a similar experience. She recalled, “During my interview process for the job, I visited the building and was struck by how old the building was. It was really worse for wear. And my new position was responsible for the building.”
Besides the potentially disappointing physical space, new appointees will usually be arriving alone without any additional political executive colleagues. “I felt like an outsider. I had only been in the building twice before,” said John Porcari, former deputy secretary at the Transportation Department. “I was familiar with the organization of DOT since the Maryland Department of Transportation (which I headed) was set up the same way DOT is. We had highways, airports, and ports in Maryland. But I found DOT to be somewhat alien and very different. I felt I was largely on my own in the beginning.”
Be prepared for briefings—probably too many of them. “I was overtaken by briefings in the first days and weeks,” recalled Marcia McNutt, former director of the U.S. Geological Survey. “I had just gotten sworn in when I started to get briefings. There were lots of things that the agency wanted me to know about, and there were conferences and Congressional testimony coming up on a variety of topics. But I felt that the agendas were being managed and I had other things to do … My time was being chunked up into 15-minute components. I think the intent was good—the agency wanted to tell me as much as they could in a short amount of time. But I needed to have more time for myself so that I could figure out what needed to be done.”
Meet with career staff at headquarters. Like many of our interviewees, Kappos held a staff meeting during his first morning on the job. “Everybody was a bit nervous about the new guy on board. I knew the issues facing the USPTO, so I wanted to get off to a fast start. I know you only have a certain period of time in these jobs, so I didn’t want to waste a single day.”
Mary Wakefield, former administrator for Health Resources and Services at the Health and Human Services Department, reached out to the entire organization: “On the day I arrived, I went through the entire agency—1,600 people. We have 10 divisions on 10 floors. I was excited about the privilege of holding office and the opportunity to work with great people. I spoke to each of the divisions that ranged in size from 70 to 200 people. I wanted face time with each office. I wanted them to see me and I wanted to see them.”
One interesting finding from our interviews was the eagerness of career civil servants to meet with and hear directly from the new political appointee. “My position had been vacant for most of the previous two years (dating back to the prior administration),” Suh recalled. “I think this created a higher anxiety from civil servants than usual. Some people were eager for new leadership while others were not. I felt I had to meet people and earn their respect. They wanted to know what I wanted to do.”
Meet with career staff in the field whenever possible. Many of our interviewees emphasized the importance of meeting employees outside headquarters. Given the vast array of field offices, Kathleen Merrigan, former deputy secretary at the Agriculture Department, made visits with field staff a priority. “Many employees in our county offices had never had people from Washington visit, not just in [the Obama] administration, but some told me not in the 35 years they had worked for USDA. Employees come to these meetings expecting a big speech, but after five minutes of remarks, I turned to questions and assured them that they could be frank and that everything was on the table.”
Michael Huerta, former administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said that whenever he traveled, he took time to visit FAA facilities. “I didn’t just visit control towers—that is just too easy. I met with our operating offices and talked to employees. I just talked to them and answered questions. Many FAA employees are not used to seeing people from headquarters, including the administrator.”
A good start is essential. The tenure of a political appointee is often shorter than anticipated, for a variety of reasons. Thus, a quick, effective start is essential. Based on his previous experience in government, Seth Harris, former Labor Department deputy secretary, said, “I realize how short the time you have in government really is when you’re a political appointee. The challenge is whether you are going to leave footprints in concrete or footprints in the snow. There are so many things that can be undone after you leave or an administration changes. In this position, I came in with a better understanding of how to succeed.”
Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. Paul R. Lawrence is the former Under Secretary for Benefits, Department of Veteran Affairs. This article is adapted from their book Succeeding as a Political Executive: 50 Insights from Experience. Their email addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.