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:, which covered the state and local government IT market, Government Health IT, and Defense Systems.

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Reader comments

Tue, Nov 30, 2010 John Weiler US

The real problem is not in the desire of an SES or political appointee to make a difference during their short tenure, its the lack of incentives and critical expertise agencies depend on to get the job done. Current acquisition processes and rewards are focused on compliance not outcomes, and many PMO support contractors/FFRDCs are motivated to extend the cost/time of programs through analysis/paralysis. Steve is accurately pointing to the symptoms of the problems, not the root cause. The IT Acquisition Advisory Council has a difference perspective based on applied principles successfully applied at GSA, PTO, GPO, Navy, USMC, and the AF. With strong agency leadership, access to benchmarked best practices and processes focused on outcomes, IT program can and will succeed. Clearly, the absence of clear outcomes and stake holder agreements force people to focus on the wrong issues. The IT-AAC's recommendations are published and focus on attacking the root causes, not the people who are often missing the expertise, data and tools to succeed.

Tue, Nov 30, 2010

Political appointees are just that - appointees! They didn't get the position based upon skills, knowledge or performance. They need to put a feather in their cap and show support for the person that appointed them. This is in direct conflict with generating valuable results. Since you can't stop politics in Washington we're stuck with this model. Don't expect results until you change the model and put experienced persons in the positions that are measured on the results they produce - which means you have to have solid metrics to measure them against.

Mon, Nov 29, 2010

The only thing accomplished is satisfying the IT Director's ego definitely not the projects or initiatives.

Mon, Nov 29, 2010 Zach Tumin

8 years... Isn't that about what a political appointee can expect as tenure? By then, perhaps an appointee's initiatives should be well-enough along, embedded, even as a program of record, and creating enough value that they persist on their own no matter who the next steward is. If not, then perhaps they *ought* to lapse.

Mon, Nov 29, 2010

There lies the problem, to many people wanting to get up the ladder of success but not willing to make the right decisions. IT is never given credit for advancing the goverment, and they never will. The only other thing I wish is that IT be given ample room for server rooms and storage. Someday they will realize that we too need to have space to work and think.

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