Advice for the incoming administration on working with the career federal officials who will help lead the effort to implement his initiatives.
That the incoming Obama administration will face huge challenges is indisputable. Many good government groups in Washington are anxious to help, and each seems to have produced a hefty document outlining how he and his new team can accomplish a seamless transition and govern effectively. That advice probably isn't at the top of the president-elect's must-read list just yet.
But in that gusher of transition advice, one message is critical: The new president and his appointees must embrace the career executive corps and effectively engage it if they are to meet those challenges. The almost 7,000 career federal executives, with an average of 26 years of experience, competed for their jobs and were selected on merit. They are an absolutely essential link between any administration's policies and agency implementation at every stage. Perhaps most important, they are the key to mobilizing the 1.8 million federal civilian employees (and millions more contractor staff) to carry out both initiatives and reforms of existing programs.
No administration would think of entering office without already having established a firm and positive "handshake" with the nation's top military brass; to do less, at the least, would open it to severe criticism, and, at the worst, undermine its ability to defend the nation. Exactly the same approach is needed with career civilian executives, but with respect to a much broader set of missions.
So what can get in the way of accomplishing such a necessary and seemingly straightforward task? Human nature is part of it. New presidents and their team are eager to make their mark and accomplish "change." It's easy to see the inherited bureaucracy as guardians of the old way. This tendency has been exacerbated by 30 years of reflexive "running against Washington," which has built a reservoir of inherent suspicion of "bureaucrats" in both parties, and leads some appointees to believe that developing a working relationship with career executives is unimportant. That, in turn, leads some career executives to despair of having the opportunity to contribute at their fullest.
As one distinguished executive puts it, "Every transition eventually becomes a transition [itself]." Political appointees move from initial distrust "to eventually saying, 'civil servants are great. Their contribution is invaluable, and I didn't realize it when I walked in.' " The trick is to minimize the time it takes for that transformation to take place and for the career-political team to function well.
The stakes this time are higher than ever. The international economic crisis, ongoing wars and the homeland security challenge all require not only a seamless transition, but a government nimble enough to attack massive and unprecedented challenges without delay.
During the period between the election and the inauguration, the incoming administration should take the following actions:
- Place knowledgeable former career executives on the transition teams assembled for departments and agencies.
- Name high-performing career executives to jobs that have become the province of political appointees, namely assistant secretaries for administration and other key positions that require experience and longevity to accomplish long-term agendas, such as implementing a new energy policy.
- Cut the number of appointed positions substantially and reduce the political layers that have multiplied over the years to extremely negative effect, as typified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to Hurricane Katrina.
- Develop a plan for a single, clear focus on the government's most valuable human resource, the career executive corps. Managing and cultivating top leadership is the norm in private industry.
Once President Obama is in office, the following immediate actions will be equally important:
- Meet early in the first months with the career executive corps to send a signal of the administration's view of the career corps as partners in meeting its key goals.
- Ensure that political appointees are fully briefed on the value and operation of the career executive corps.
- Direct agency political leaders to schedule, early in the term, focused, intensive meetings with their career executives to establish working relations and to share policy and management goals.
While these steps will serve to reinvigorate career leadership, the new administration still will find itself facing two major and intertwined problems with regard to the Senior Executive Service, namely, an approaching tsunami of SES retirements and a pay system that is demoralizing many members at the same time it is dissuading many able potential applicants from aspiring to SES positions. In some departments, the number of executives eligible to retire has reached 50 percent of the corps. The broken pay system, which has resulted in some managers being paid more than the senior executives who supervise them, must be fixed in order to retain experienced and talented executives, as well as make the corps attractive to the high-quality applicants needed to replace those who do retire.
These challenges, too, must be faced if the Obama administration -- and the American people -- are to have the effective government we need to address the issues confronting the nation today.
Carol Bonosaro is president of the Senior Executives Association.
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