How to influence policy

Most agency appointees come in planning to shape policy, and quickly find it's not as easy as they had hoped.

cartoon image with case

Many new political appointees want to shape the world of policy, but they need to know how to navigate the process. (FCW image)

A strong motivation for political appointees to come to Washington is the opportunity to positively influence policy — to make a difference. Senior-level appointees might also bring the expectation of setting a portion of the administration’s agenda related to their agency’s mission. This is particularly likely for a first-time appointee who hasn’t previously experienced or operated within the government complex.

In fact, the characteristics that enabled executives to set and achieve goals in the private sector — being decisive, directive, a risk taker — could undermine their prospects for success as government officials.

It is crucial to understand who drives agency policy agendas. The new executive-level appointee must determine whether he or she is in the driver’s seat or is a passenger in the agenda-setting process. Regardless of their role, here are some steps that newly appointed leaders can take to be influential contributors.

Step 1: Know what aspects of the agenda have already been set

A new administration’s agenda has its roots in the presidential campaign, when the candidate is surrounded by advisers who help establish key policy positions. Those positions, particularly if they are associated with specific actions, are further developed during the post-election transition period, when the focus expands to include implementation.


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Unless you are one of those pre-inaugural advisers, the foundation for part or all of your agency’s agenda has already been set by someone else, at least directionally, prior to your invitation to join the administration as a political appointee. That is even more likely to be the case in a midterm or second-term appointment.

Regardless of timing, the new political leader must be aware of relevant agenda items and related commitments for which he or she will be responsible before trying to develop new policies.

Step 2: Know the opportunities to help shape policy

The newly appointed leader is expected to support the administration’s agenda and needs to be quickly briefed on that agenda. However, the briefing process might also be used to reveal opportunities to provide policy refinements and other forms of influence.

It might also become apparent that there are other initiatives the appointee has in mind that have not yet been considered. Fitting those new initiatives into the overarching direction and philosophy of the already articulated goals will increase the prospects that those suggestions will be favorably received. Although the pre-existing agenda will be a priority, the appointee might well be asked to drive this additional agenda.

Step 3: Know the relevant portfolios and develop relationships with key officials

Some of the president’s closest agenda-setting advisers reside in organizations that are outside the agency structure in the Executive Office of the President (EOP). Several of those offices were established by Congress and have a statutory mission that includes policy development. A few examples are the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The White House Office, itself an EOP entity, encompasses other central policy-setting offices, including the Domestic Policy Council, the National Economic Council, and the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs.

New political leaders would be well-advised to learn more about EOP offices that have portfolios related to the agency they will be serving, including the key people involved with those portfolios. For more senior appointees, it might be appropriate or even anticipated that you reach out to those offices for a briefing. Establishing a trusted relationship could support the opportunity to contribute to shaping or suggesting additional policy initiatives.

Step 4: Know your agency’s role in policy-making and its “go-to” people

Newly appointed leaders should learn the historical and expected responsibilities of their agency or office. It’s important to understand policy establishment and administration roles. Although you should have evaluated those considerations when you were contemplating the offer to serve, a validation of that initial research will inform your ability to drive and execute agendas for the administration.

A related step is to identify and establish relationships with the people in your agency who have held key responsibilities for carrying out its mission. The support of your “go-to” people will enable the responsiveness required to establish your reputation as a reliable member of the administration’s policy-setting team.

Political appointees, particularly those in leadership positions, need to remember that they are part of a select team — the president’s team. Their success will be closely associated with that of the administration in which they serve. Knowing the basics will serve as a foundation on which the political appointee can develop a position of influence in driving, as well as executing, the administration’s agenda.

This article was originally published as part of the National Academy of Public Administration's Political Appointee Project, an initiative supported by Ernst and Young.

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