Analysis: Getting Appointees Up to Speed

The White House orientation program is not enough; new political executives need agency-specific guidance.

As political appointees take their posts in the Obama administration, they are eager to receive useful information and insights about operating in Washington. The White House Office of Presidential Personnel offers orientation sessions, but there is a clear need for such programs at the departmental level.

Under the 2000 Presidential Transition Act, new administrations can allocate $1 million for appointee orientation programs. Presidents Clinton (without Transition Act funding) and George W. Bush conducted a series of sessions for their new executives, as has President Obama. The Presidential Personnel Office hosted a retreat for Cabinet and senior White House staff last summer, and a session for the President's Management Council last fall. Activities for sub-Cabinet appointees will begin in March.

But in its recent report, "Ready to Govern: Improving the Presidential Transition," the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service concluded that too little attention is paid and insufficient resources devoted to preparing and training political appointees.

The rolling appointment process makes the challenge even more daunting. Most political appointees aren't in place at the start of an administration. In mid-February, more than one year after Obama's inauguration, The Washington Post reported that 40 percent of the 515 Senate-approved positions it was tracking had not yet been filled. Of those 209 unfilled positions, 88 individuals had been nominated but not yet confirmed and 121 positions were still open. Some of those confirmed in 2009 likely will begin leaving in 2011, during the administration's third year, and the nomination-confirmation process will begin anew.

In a 2008 survey of departing Bush appointees, the National Academy of Public Administration and the Partnership for Public Service found that nearly 45 percent had received no orientation, and 33 percent rated the orientation they did receive as somewhat effective (17.2 percent), not very effective (12.5 percent) or very poor (3.1 percent).

Appointees have expressed a desire for orientation services, including insight into the workings of Congress and the Office of Management and Budget. They receive numerous briefing books at the start of their tenure, but the materials don't provide much advice on the navigation challenge. In recent interviews with new political appointees, one executive said, "I wish there had been a boot camp -- Washington 101. That would have been helpful. A boot camp would have told me how to navigate in Washington, including working with the Hill."

The White House's orientation programs are highly worthwhile, but more is needed. In addition to ongoing efforts, each department should launch onboarding initiatives to address specific missions and challenges. Many private and public sector onboarding programs could serve as models. Agency-specific programs offer three key advantages:

  • Speed: Departments and agencies can provide orientation soon after appointees arrive. It takes longer to put together larger, governmentwide sessions.
  • Customization: Political executives come to their positions with different backgrounds and expertise. Those who come from Capitol Hill, for instance, don't need briefings on the workings of Congress.
  • Small groups: Departments can gather small groups, perhaps 10 to 12 new appointees, allowing them to focus sessions on specific topics.

To improve the orientation process, chief operating officers should create a small unit of one or two people in their offices to assume responsibility for the onboarding of new executives. Reporting to the COO, often at the deputy secretary level, the team and its mission would have prestige and credibility. The team should meet with new political executives shortly after confirmation, and then lead a series of small group sessions that are tailored to specific roles and missions. The onboarding unit also should facilitate meetings between new executives and those who have been in the department longer.

The Congressional Research Service also should have a role in the onboarding process, conducting background sessions on Congress and the legislative branch. And OMB should offer seminars on the budget process and working with its staff.

Departments should work together and partner with nonprofit organizations, such as the National Academy of Public Administration and the Partnership for Public Service, to convene small groups of former political executives and newcomers. These sessions would provide appointees an opportunity to hear how their predecessors handled similar challenges.

Agency-specific orientation programs would be a vital addition to the White House's offerings. And the success of new political executives and the agencies they serve might depend on it.

Paul R. Lawrence (paul.lawrence@ey.com) is a partner at Ernst & Young focusing on public service, and Mark A. Abramson (mark.abramson@thoughtleadershipinc.com) is president of Leadership Inc.

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