Preparing for the Transition: Dos and Don’ts

A former government executive lists what career professionals should -- and shouldn’t -- do when a new administration comes to Washington.

This article has been updated.

This four-part series on preparing for the presidential transition is the result of surveys and interviews conducted by Alan Balutis, a former federal executive with more than 30 years of government experience. Balutis, who served as the Commerce Department's first chief information officer, is now a senior and distinguished fellow in U.S. public sector for Cisco Systems Inc. He also served as a member of the Technology, Innovation and Government Reform team for the Obama-Biden transition team in 2008-09.

In addition to his insights, Balutis has culled advice during the last two presidential transitions from political appointees and government executives, including John Marshall, a former chief information officer at the U.S. Agency for International Development; and Steve Dewhurst, former director of budget and program analysis at the Agriculture Department.

Government Executive will publish these installments on transition preparation, as well as one from an anonymous former career professional and political appointee, every Wednesday for the next three weeks. This week, Balutis presents some top tips for career managers working with the new administration.

1. Do establish a transition team and a schedule, if possible. Balance long- and short-term interests and rely on outside help to make your case, if appropriate. Make sure you play it straight with the new team. The team can prepare the new secretary and others for confirmation hearings, including an assessment of the department's strengths and weaknesses.

2. Don't give appointees' ideas short shrift with the line "We tried that five years ago." Remember that appointees are new to the process, so be supportive and responsive.

3. Do designate a departmental liaison to work with the transition team and the bureaus. Each bureau should designate a transition contact.

4. Don't forget career managers have responsibility for the stewardship of the federal government until the new political team is in place. That leadership can last up to a year after the election.

5. Do provide appointees with written and verbal guidelines on workplace issues and ethics. More than half of survey respondents did not receive an orientation from the Office of Personnel Management or Office of Government Ethics.

6. Don't overdo it. You only ratify the stereotype of a government bureaucrat when you show up for the first meeting with an armful of three-ring binders full of organizational and budget charts.

7. Do establish an agenda for the first meeting with the presidential transition team. Give detailed briefings early in the process and tailor them to an individual's experience and knowledge.

8. Don't assume that the transition team members know all the acronyms and inside-baseball government terms. Start with the absolute basics until you establish the appointees' level of understanding and degree of comfort.

9. Do try to understand the background and context of new appointees. Have they worked in government before? What do they hope to accomplish during their service?

10. Don't appear to be a back-stabber or intent on maintaining the status quo. Any bad ideas usually will fall by the wayside so don't fight appointees. Try to interact with them routinely, and to paraphrase a real estate saying, the three most important things are listen, listen, listen.

11. Do stress cooperation between political and career management to meet the goals of the secretary and the department. Almost all appointees leave government grateful for hard-working and dedicated careerists who helped them do their jobs well and kept them out of trouble. The sooner you establish that relationship of mutual trust and appreciation, the better for all.

12. Don't speak or write in bureaucratic language. One of the things appointees will look for is someone who can explain things clearly.

13. Do prepare a management pocket guide. At the Commerce Department, we created the "Management 101 Notebook," a primer on the budget, travel, procurement and hiring practices. Career personnel, when preparing materials, should step back and view their work from an outsider's perspective.

14. Don't be a "yes" person. Careerists must speak their minds as a professional, and part of your obligation is to speak truth to power. Keep in mind, though, the delivery of that message also is important.