Career execs lead during administrative transitions

A change of administrations poses familiar challenges and opportunities for career federal service leaders

Career agency leaders have a unique opportunity to educate new presidents about each agency’s role and importance in the government, former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card has advised career federal executives.

Appointed agency leaders arrive with expectations that are not always realistic, and it’s up to the career executives to bring them down to earth, said Card, who spoke in April at the Interagency Resources Management Conference. A major theme of the conference was transition.

Maintaining optimism during transitions between administrations is important, Card said. Agency leaders who want to persuade newcomers to emphasize particular programs must project confidence that the programs are effective and worthwhile.

Top career executives also must ensure the agency’s operations continue uninterrupted and get the incoming appointees comfortable with the agency’s mission, resources, people and capabilities.

“The career people really are the cornerstone of every federal agency,” Robert Burton, deputy administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said in an interview. “The value they provide is hard to quantify. They’re there for consistency. They’re there for expertise.”

It’s never too early to begin to prepare for a transition, agreed Elaine Rigas, who is the Homeland Security Department’s adviser to the undersecretary for management. DHS has been working on the next transition for more than a year, she said. That process includes identifying the career employees most able to step into acting leadership roles when political appointees leave, and testing their readiness with training and exercises, she said.

The next president will struggle with a budget and a State of the Union address immediately after taking office, said Jim Flyzik, founder of the Flyzik Group. For that reason, agency managers who want to advocate the continuation of certain programs must figure out the best approach to defending them, he said.

“The amount of pressure [on the president] in that first couple of months is going to be great,” Flyzik said. “You can’t wait until then to be thinking, ‘What’s my brief?’ The time is now.”

Burton said career employees should not expect to have the final say on their agency’s policy agenda. “The politicals serve a vital role,” he said. “They ensure the proper formation of broad policies that the administration is implementing and ensure that they’re consistently implemented across all agencies.”

Doris Hausser, a former chief human capital officer at the Office of Personnel Management, said changes of administration can sometimes result in officials having to terminate programs that are showing success or that individual managers have a personal stake in keeping alive. Hausser, a veteran of six presidential administration transitions, said program changes are a difficult, but inevitable, result of presidential transitions.

Flyzik, too, said managing transitions is a challenging but necessary part of working in the federal government. “View a transition as an opportunity,” he said, “not a threat.” 

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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