Deputy chiefs key to transition
- By Richard W. Walker
- Jun 06, 2008
Overhead recently at a government agency: “Can you believe those career folks are starting to work on the transition?”
That’s exactly what career executives — particularly deputy chief executive officers — should be doing with an election looming in about 20 weeks. The career CXOs will be running the show at their agencies while they await the appointment and confirmation of new political executives.
“This time next year, it’s going to be the deputy CXOs who are running the government,” said Jonathan Breul, executive director at the IBM Center for the Business of Government and former senior adviser to the deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget. “It’s…the career officials who are going to be acting for some period of time. This isn’t a short-term arrangement, and it could last for quite a while.”
At the Energy Department, Deputy Chief Human Capital Officer Rita Franklin, a career civil servant, began tackling the transition six months ago. “It’s the right thing to do because we have to be prepared for the next person that will come in,” she said. “In coming months, about a quarter of my time will be spent on transition, and as it gets closer to election time and thereafter, probably half to three-quarters of my time will be spent on transition-related activities.”
Once DOE’s politically appointed CHCO departs, Franklin will temporarily assume the top role — as will most other deputy chief executives governmentwide. “My position description is that I act in the absence of,” she said. During that time, Franklin said, she will continue to follow the department’s current human-capital priorities until the new CHCO arrives.
At the General Services Administration, career officials started preparing six months after the last presidential election, said David Bibb, GSA’s acting administrator. “We have everything ready to go.” Bibb is working on briefing papers for the next GSA administrator. He plans to address long-standing issues, such as the proliferation of acquisition contracts that have led to what he described as an overlapping, confusing excess of options.
At the Social Security Administration, preparations for previous transitions — presidential or simply agency leadership — have provided a framework for the coming transition to a new administration.
“Transition is something that happens with a greater frequency than we think about,” said deputy CHCO Felicita Sola-Carter, who has served at SSA since 1971. “Presidential transitions happen every four years. Even if you don’t have a change in party, there are changes in some of the lead players in the administration.”
Bibb said experienced career executives have ample opportunity to practice dealing with transitions because agency political appointees change more frequently than every four years. It’s common to have two or three agency heads during a single presidential term.
“The career executives are constantly in-briefing a new political appointee,” Bibb said. “It can be [a] distraction from the agency mission.”
The Labor Department’s deputy chief information officer, Tom Wiesner, hasn’t been through a presidential transition as a deputy CIO, so the experience will be a new one, he said. Nevertheless, Wiesner has some idea of what needs to happen. “Later this fall, we’ll start putting together briefing books and information to get the new CIO up to speed.”
In general, career executives provide a bridge for incoming political appointees, said Rob Burton, deputy administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at OMB.
“The career people really are the cornerstone of every federal agency,” Burton said. “The value they provide is hard to quantify. They’re there for consistency, they’re there for expertise. The key to a political appointee’s success is a reliance on the competence of the career employees.”
Unfortunately, some political appointees don’t understand the value, Burton said, adding that “it’s a natural tendency for some political appointees to view dependence on the career executives as some kind of weakness.”
Burton said he thinks the opposite is true. “The career folks really are the subject-matter experts,” he said. “They know where the pitfalls are. They know where the successes and failures of the past are and what not to repeat.”
During a transition period, it becomes vitally important that career employees and the incoming political appointees understand their roles. Both sides must keep those roles from getting blurred, Burton said.
Susan Swart, a career CIO at the State Department, said career officials’ and appointees’ distinctly different roles are positive for a government organization, even if there are tensions.
“I think it’s a good relationship because [appointed officials] bring a fresh set of eyes and the desire to do what the administration wants to do,” Swart said. “My experience is that it’s a good mix. There are tensions there, but I think those tensions are good for the organization.”
Broadly speaking, the relationship between career executives and appointees is symbiotic. “The best-kept secret in Washington is that both sides of this relationship need each other,” Breul said. “The new appointees need the career staff, and the career staff need the new appointees. They will depend on each other to succeed.”
On a tactical level, the role of career executives will differ from agency to agency, depending on their business responsibilities.
In the financial management arena, for example, deputy chief financial officers will have to prepare historical budget and funding information for new CFOs, illuminating the policy context to help them shape their own program agenda, said James Martin, deputy CFO at the Housing and Urban Development Department.
During the transition, HUD will be at a critical point in its plans to implement a modern financial system. “It will be up to the deputy CFO to champion the full execution of those plans as being in the best interests of the department regardless of administration,” Martin said.
Once the newcomers are on board, it’s important to make assimilation as smooth as possible, career officials say.
For example, at the Treasury Department, Deputy CFO Al Runnels will assist in developing an orientation plan and ensure its execution, including a proposed calendar for the first 90 days. He will have concise but comprehensive briefing materials on hand.
At State, the deputies will work to get new officials up to speed on the organizational culture and how the bureaucracy works, Swart said.
Tom Sharpe, Treasury’s senior career procurement executive, will hold briefings during the first few months following the appointees’ arrival in coordination with other deputies throughout the department. The goal is to brief the apointees on how procurement works, he said.
In those briefings, he will emphasize the importance of contracting and key procurement objectives, such as reaching its small-business contracting goals.
For many career officials, meticulously planned briefings will be key to successful transition.
Gloria Steele, senior deputy assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said her briefings are simple. She offers basic facts on how the agency operates, pitfalls to avoid in the new role and lessons agency officials have learned through the years. Steele added that she will provide multiple briefings to avoid unloading e erything at once on the new chief.
The bottom line is that it’s critical to have open, honest conversations with the new officials, Franklin said.
It’s also crucial to make a good first impression. “Regardless of where you are in government, it’s important to get off on the right foot,” Bibb said. “That means if it’s a political appointee who’s going to be confirmed, as most of them are, complete honesty and candor. Discuss what’s going on in the agency, what’s been working, what’s not working.”
Personal chemistry is a good thing if you have it, but not everybody clicks on a personal level, Bibb said. “But if you don’t happen to click, that’s not disastrous. It’s a little tougher, but I think then you really have to work on finding common ground. Sometimes that happens naturally, and sometimes you have to work for it.”
For Franklin, there’s something more important than chemistry. “What’s most important is focusing on the success of the organization,” she said. Ben Bain, Michael Hardy, Mary Mosquera, Florence Olsen and Matthew Weigelt contributed to this report.