How political appointees undermine large IT programs -- and how to turn the tide

'Continuity' awards program could give political appointees a small incentive for continuing work begun by their predecessors

Steve Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

I recently participated in a discussion about why so many large government IT projects fail. One point that came up was instability in executive sponsorship. A political appointee makes a project a priority and gets it started, but by the time project implementation is in full swing, that appointee is gone and the new one has no interest in projects the predecessor promoted. The result is a loss of executive leadership and momentum.

The U.S. system of government is unique among advanced western democracies in the prevalence of political appointees in agency leadership positions. In countries such as the United Kingdom — to take just one example — the equivalent of an assistant secretary would typically be a civil servant.

Political appointees come with pluses and minuses, public policy experts say. On the plus side, appointees more faithfully represent the political views of the party in power than do career employees. And, because they come from outside government, they are a source of innovation and new ideas. On the minus side, they are so eager to innovate — and make their mark — that they often reject whatever has been started earlier. And, of course, they typically don’t stay long enough to see any projects through of their own, other than those that are quick hits. That problem is also found in the military when officers are given brief assignments at a command.

When I was appointed administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in 1993, I spoke with my predecessor, Al Burman, on his last day on the job. I told him that I thought procurement was a nonpartisan issue and that, whenever possible, I wanted to continue initiatives he had begun. I asked him to identify the three most important projects he had started that were not yet finished, and I promised to try to continue working on them. I hope he would say I kept my promise.

However, the problem now is that too many of the incentives for political appointees are weighted toward abandoning old initiatives — typically before they have reached fruition — and starting new ones.

I have a suggestion that I want to throw into the court of the Partnership for Public Service, one of my favorite good-government organizations and one that often experiments with unusual approaches to doing things.

I propose the launch of what I will call the Continuity Award — at least until a public relations expert comes up with a better name. The award would be given each year to the political appointee who most successfully continues and brings to fruition a major initiative begun by his or her predecessor. A good candidate would be a new executive who does not drop the ball on a major IT program.

The award could call attention to the problem of continuity in public-sector management and could help counter, at least a little, the overwhelming incentives the current system has against continuing initiatives of previous appointees.

It would send another good message as well, one that is particularly relevant in these times of partisanship on steroids: Not every issue in government, particularly those related to managing the government, need involve partisan rancor between Democrats and Republicans.

Partnership for Public Service, what do you think?


About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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Reader comments

Sun, Oct 24, 2010 Mark H New Mexico

The problems you identify are not unique to political appointees. The same dynamics apply to senior positions withing military commands (and probably any organization). Not infrequently, new commanders or directors (whether military or civil service), are more concerned with building personal resumes or legacies than with finding the best ways to achieve or sustain mission excellence. As with appointees, a senior officer's predecessor's ongoing initiatives are frequently killed, to be replaced by the new leader's pet projects. What can't be concluded within the leader's tenure (often two to four years), dies on the vine or is deliberately cut away. This situation leads to a focus on short-term objectives. This pattern exists, in large part, because military services groom and promote to senior leadership individuals who fit a certain profile. One of the unofficial, yet very real, elements of that profile is demonstration of a very strident ego. While confidence and action-orientation are necessary, unbalanced narcissism is evident in leaders who are compelled to "pee on every rock." A leader who focuses first on climbing the ladder or being in the spotlight is a detriment to the organization's purpose.

Sat, Oct 23, 2010 Jeff Myers Washington, DC

Although the continuity of leadership is clearly important, there is also a tendency in the IT world (particularly in government) to try to specify the requirements for a huge and perfect IT system, then to code it, and then to launch and operate it. This takes a long time, and the originally "perfect" design and coding may become less than perfect or even unacceptable as that design and coding takes 2-3 years or more, regardless of who's in control. Agile/rapid development may be a useful method to address the problem (in addition to continuity of leadership). Agile development essentially says let's build it partly, and try it out to see what people think - then build some more. It gives a chance for quick feedback by real users long before the initiator is gone, and also gives a chance for real feedback much earlier in development. - Jeff Myers

Fri, Oct 22, 2010 Steve Kelman

I didn't want to make the column about myself, so I just mentioned the one meeting with my predecessor, Al Burman. Actually, I had several conversations with him before I started, and while I was Administrator of OFPP, I got his advice frequently and tried if possible to have lunch with him once a month. I definitely felt I had things to learn from him, and I wanted his input.

Fri, Oct 22, 2010 Don

I agree with your problem, not in the solution since the best way to rid ourselves of the problem is to rid ourselves of the political appointees. In my own experiences, I've seen a lot of appointees come and go. They have three main flaws, they usually don't understand enough about their agency to make proper decisions on IT, they usually come in with a management syle called "new broom tactics", and they usually are just trying to reinvent using IT to build their resume. Most of these appointees have no IT experience or resume material in IT, but want to add it at any cost usually not caring about the department nor the IT folks. There's nothing worse than an appointee that thinks just getting the position makes them worthy enough to make all the tough decisions, decisions that are usually self serving. Get rid of the politics and the cost of doing buisiness will go down way more than we realize. Political appointees should be in positions that aren't over techical services and they should be able to make decisions that affects IT directly as they do.

Fri, Oct 22, 2010

Steve, the fact that you met up with your predecessor and queried him briefly is commendable and something that very few political appointees do. But you realize that you could have done more; you could have invited your predecessor to further meetings and discovered even more information thereby providing a smoother transition. Additionally you didn't mention if you tried to meet with him before his last day thereby explaining to the audience on how initiate you placed in a smooth transition process. In my experience the vast majority of political appointees are not qualified for their respective positions - especially when those positions are technical in nature CIO, CTO, CSO, etc. My evidence for this is the educational and work experience of those appointees vs the responsibilities of the appointment. The root cause of the problem is the appointments; this system should change. The president should be allowed to appoint the head of an agency or department but it should stop there. The appointee should have the skills needed to run that agency or department and seek the advice of the existing management. If the appointee sees that management is incapable of providing accurate advice then layoffs should occur. Civil Servant positions should not be guaranteed for life if we expect them to measure up to the private sector.

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