How political appointees make a mess of IT management

When it comes to IT, political appointees usually stick around long enough to do some damage but depart before they have a chance to do some real good.

That’s the consensus among Federal Computer Week readers who commented on a recent column by Steve Kelman. A former political appointee himself, Kelman pointed out that some problems with large IT programs could be avoided if political appointees had an incentive to carry through with initiatives that were not begun on their watch.

The problem is that appointees often feel they have no vested interest in programs initiated by their predecessors, he wrote. So Kelman suggested that the Partnership for Public Service create a “continuity award” to recognize officials who successfully see existing programs through to completion. The organization’s president and CEO, Max Stier, responds below.

Here’s a sampling of what readers had to say. Comments have been edited for clarity, length and style.

Résumé Padding
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 style called "new broom tactics," and they usually are just trying to reinvent using IT to build their résumés. Most of these appointees have no IT experience on their résumés but want to add it at any cost, usually not caring about the department or the IT folks.
— Don

Big Bite, Slow Chew
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, 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 two to three years or more [to complete], regardless of who's in control.
— Jeff Myers

Political Appointees, Mil-Spec Style
The same dynamics apply to senior positions within military commands — and probably any organization. Not infrequently, new commanders or directors, whether military or civil service, are more concerned with building personal résumés 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.
Mark H.

Another Approach
Steve, I am a big believer in the power of awards, but I don’t think it would do much in this case. Better from my end would be a term-appointed chief operating officer and career management executives all the way around. I don't think the case for making them political outweighs the massive problem you highlight. That may be shooting for the moon, but how about a transition process that systematically identifies these key opportunities for the new leadership team?
Max Stier, Partnership for Public Service

About the Author

John Monroe is Senior Events Editor for the 1105 Public Sector Media Group, where he is responsible for overseeing the development of content for print and online content, as well as events. John has more than 20 years of experience covering the information technology field. Most recently he served as Editor-in-Chief of Federal Computer Week. Previously, he served as editor of three sister publications: civic.com, which covered the state and local government IT market, Government Health IT, and Defense Systems.

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