Briefing memos pull back curtains

Former feds distill little-known necessities of governing into simple terms for incoming  political appointees. Large binders full of briefing materials about agencies’ projects and objectives will be waiting for the next administration’s political appointees when they arrive.

“I’ve prepared briefing books, and they can be overwhelming,” said Jonathan Breul, who spent 32 years working for the federal government and is now executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. “They can be so full of detail that you actually feel numb by the time you go through them.”
That’s one reason why Breul and other former government officials decided to distill their management insights into a series of briefing memos titled “The Operator’s Manual for the New Administration.” The memos have tips on a topic of interest to all appointees: How to get things done in Washington.

“You can do that with some on-the-job training, or you can do that with some smart advice with lessons learned from the past,” Breul said.

Although transitions within government are common, the changing of the Oval Office occupant is perhaps the most complex. Thousands of people leave the government, and a whole new set of executives arrives.

“It’s topsy-turvy and never clear who’s coming and who’s going,” Breul said. For example, someone who worked at an agency as a contractor might become a political appointee and return to the agency as the boss.

The authors, all of whom have experience in government and public policy, interviewed hundreds of current and former government officials, public policy experts, academics and researchers to assemble the comprehensive guide that details the shift from campaigning to confirmation and governing.

Management matters when appointees seek to turn stump speech rhetoric into priorities for agencies and finally into concrete results, Breul said. Given that the average appointee’s tenure is 24 months, the authors stress the need to know how to govern well from the beginning.

Appointees must understand how agencies operate before they jump in. Co-author Marty Wagner, a former General Services Administration official and now a senior fellow at the IBM center, wrote that appointees should use agencies’ briefing books as key references while keeping in mind that they don’t always help an executive understand what the most important issues are.

The book also urges appointees to learn who’s watching them. Appointees often come from private-sector companies and don’t understand the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the corporate and government worlds, Breul said.

Corporations don’t have the number and range of interested parties that many government agencies contend with, he said. Companies don’t have a Government Accountability Office, an inspector general and Congress watching each step. Agencies have overseers, and all of them have an opinion on how agencies should operate, he said.

The watchers can help appointees get things done if the appointees are smart about using their support. “But they can really get in the way if they’re cross-wise with what your goals and agendas are,” Breul said.

Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said he recommends reaching out to members of Congress.

“Members from the president-elect’s party, in particular, want to know if the new administration intends to do it with them or to them,” he told a congressional subcommittee.

In writing the book, Breul said, the authors didn’t want to use academic or technical terms. Instead, they broke down questions and answers into simple language.

“We tried to view this through the lens of the person who’s running the organization and handle all of those dimensions,” Breul said.

It was difficult, he added. The authors debated and challenged each other about which topics were most important, and they often struggled to find ways to be practical and frank.

In the end, they discovered that the elements represent an interconnected package of issues: One piece doesn’t work well without the others.

“You can’t deal with technology without the money, and you can’t deal with it without the people,” Breul said. “And you need some collaboration, you need some innovation, and certainly you need some leadership.”

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