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Forman: Political appointees must be ready to lead

Political appointees have to gain traction quickly to be change agents

Many political appointees find that success or failure rides on how quickly they can gain the traction needed to make the significant changes they’ve been hired to accomplish. But change agents often run into opposition, particularly in government, and appointees can often become targets before they unpack their boxes.

Opponents often look for an early misstep to knock an appointee off-message and into a defensive posture or might try to associate the appointee with fraud, waste, abuse or otherwise risky behavior. That’s why it’s important for appointees who want to be real agents for change to clearly articulate boundaries for risk-taking at the start of their tenure.

But before they even take the job, there’s the recruitment process, where presidential appointees are told about all the power, resources and authority they will have. Appointees often negotiate to obtain more power before they take the job: more staff, more budget control, a seat at the Cabinet member’s table and a direct line to the president. The bigger the agenda, the more power you need, right?

When you show up for work that first day, you realize power alone is not enough. As a senior appointee, you quickly find that you cannot effectively direct more than 20 people, just like management studies say. Getting traction is really much more about leadership than control. For example, the federal chief information officer — a job I’m somewhat familiar with — must create the vision and then get a large portion of the federal workforce to embrace it. That's not an easy task, because we’re talking about trying to influence the actions of several thousand people, most of whom the CIO will never meet.

For the CIO of the federal government, there are several challenges. First, you must lead hundreds of thousands of technology-savvy individuals who will not follow unless they feel you understand tech trends and can create a road map that aligns with their future. The CIO must make it personally rewarding to stay in the government IT workforce during the inevitable chaos that comes with major change.

Second, the CIO must also make clear to workers what level of risk is acceptable, because performance breakthroughs in government always involves risk-taking. As mentioned above, this is complicated by the fact that many people in government view change itself as risky. People want to emulate the behavior of the visionary leader, so it is just as important for the CIO to articulate a management framework for taking risks as it is to articulate a technology vision.

Third, the federal CIO must gain support from hundreds of other presidential appointees who might be uncomfortable with technology and might have little faith in their agency’s IT organization and its willingness to change. To do this, the CIO must understand the transformation initiatives that are a priority for these appointees. It is imperative that the federal CIO quickly build trust and strong personal relationships among his peers and show that he can solve their problems.

The new appointees have a tremendous opportunity to influence the direction of the federal government for decades to come. A strong vision will serve them well — so will a framework for letting their people know how much risk-taking is OK.

About the Author

Mark Forman is an accomplished Executive with more than 29 years of government management reform experience, including a Presidential appointment to be the first U.S. Administrator for E-Government and Information Technology, the Federal Government’s Chief Information Officer. Mr. Forman is currently the CEO of Government Transaction Services, Inc. which was established in 2010 to be the leading provider of cloud-based business process and transaction services supporting organizations that do business with the federal government. Government Transaction Services’ products reduce administrative burdens and simplify interactions with government, as well provide on-line practitioner communities.

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