Second Term

Putting your best foot forward

image of shoe

President Barack Obama won re-election Nov. 6, with the results in Ohio cinching the victory late that evening. Now that the concession and victory speeches are in the record books, the work of transitioning to the second term begins.

Obama’s transition will be a less radical one than Republican challenger Mitt Romney would have led, but it is common for agency leaders and other political appointees to step down or change jobs as a second term begins, so many career employees can expect new people to fill those roles.

And sequestration adds a wild card to the transition. Unless Congress issues a repeal or delay before the end of the year, the president will have to deal with massive budget cuts set in motion long ago, which could leave agencies grappling with funding reductions of 8 percent to 10 percent.

“There is so much uncertainty this year,” said Mark Forman, co-founder of Government Transaction Services and former administrator of e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget. “You have to figure on an agency-by-agency basis, looking at [which congressional committee] chairman or ranking member may have lost seats, figure out if they should try to put one more year [into a] pet program, or if they are going to not do anything or let it ride. There’s a lot of program-specific impact, and folks have to watch because of the possible changeover this year.”

A lot will be happening in the period between the election and the inauguration, said Alan Balutis, senior director at Cisco Systems’ Internet Business Solutions Group and former CIO at the Commerce Department. He was also a member of the Obama-Biden Transition Team in 2008.

Alan Balutis

Alan Balutis: It takes a seasoned
executive to navigate a transition.

“A lame-duck Congress will be coming back to deal with sequestration, the debt limit, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and a host of other issues that they haven’t dealt with throughout the 112th Congress to date,” he said. “It will take a pretty seasoned executive to keep a hand on the helm during this time.”

The challenge for agency managers and other employees is to keep working despite all the turbulence above and around them. Although the political landscape will change, the jobs of most non-political employees will not change — until the new appointees settle in and set their agendas.

Building new bridges

Career managers must forge relationships with the newly appointed political leaders at their agencies. Those who do it well will develop a strong team that can move the agency forward. Those who fail might end up contributing to a dysfunctional environment and an agency that stumbles.

The key is not technical proficiency but attitude, said Sandra Bates, who served as commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service under President George W. Bush.

“You need to demonstrate that you are a team player, that you’re supportive and that you’re dedicated to the agency’s mission,” she said. “If a career person is open to new ideas and connecting with new leadership, that sets a good foundation for moving ahead, as opposed to one who is territorial and resistant to change.”

Dennis Fischer, who led FTS before Bates, said the building of that relationship should start as soon as possible. However, part of the burden is on the incoming political appointee to respect the people already at the agency, which some do better than others.

“The most successful new people who come in treat all career people as valuable assets [and] want them to work together,” he said. “For a new person to do a litmus test of how successful he or she will be. Career people don’t have a choice. Their choice is to get out of the way, retire, or be rounded up and removed.”

Step 1: Brief the new chiefs

Even though the president is staying in office, his new appointees will need help getting up to speed, a responsibility that falls to career managers.

Those activities should already be under way, said Bob Suda, a former federal IT leader and now president of Suda and Associates, and they should be carried to completion before the inauguration. It’s important to do that work with alacrity and professionalism regardless of how you feel about the election results, said Ira Hobbs, former Treasury Department CIO and now vice chairman at large at the Industry Advisory Council and principal officer of consulting firm Hobbs and Hobbs.

“The incoming [appointees], regardless of your personal feelings, are not the enemy,” Hobbs said. “Your role is to provide objective input that speaks to the mission at hand and to help the incoming administration hit the ground running. Facts and figures are daily watchwords, not [an attachment to] what we have done in the past, except as it provides context and orientation.”

“It’s important for the career folks to reach out and help the new political appointees because, in general, the politicals do not understand how government operates,” said John Gilligan, president of the Gilligan Group and former CIO at the Energy Department.

John Gilligan

John Gilligan: Incoming appointees
need help from career feds.

They think they do, but they really have a naïve understanding of government,” he added. “Many of them may have worked in large industry organizations, but it’s very different...The scale is what they have a hard time understanding — and how you get things done. The career folks can often be very helpful” in that regard.

Karen Evans, a 28-year career official who retired from OMB in 2009 as administrator of e-government and IT, emphasized the need for diplomacy.

“There’s nuance in saying things like, ‘No, you can’t do that because...'” she said. “A lot of times, they don’t hear the ‘because,’ even though that’s a legitimate reason. Or you can say, ‘Yes, I would be glad to help you, and here’s what we need to get it done.’ You’re saying the same thing. It’s just a different way of presenting it.”

Suda agreed and recommended sticking to facts and data when educating the newcomers. “I would not give them my opinions [because] that can get you into trouble,” he said.

Bob Suda

Bob Suda: Offer facts, not opinions.

Those who have been through past transitions say agency leaders should prepare thorough, but brief, reports on their programs. Suda said reports should range from two to 10 pages, and Evans, now a partner at KE&T Partners, said an even briefer summary can be helpful.

“A one-page salient executive summary with the highlights of the program on top can entice them to read the rest of the material,” Evans said. “If you were to be confirmed and you got 15 binders, that would be a little overwhelming. They can go through and read the background when they have time, but you want the salient points of your program to be understood.”

Advancing your career

A transition in leadership can be an opportune time to advance one’s own career. Even though President Barack Obama is continuing into a second term, it’s likely that many politically appointed leaders will change. How should ambitious managers take advantage of this opportunity? Veterans of past transitions have some advice.

“Two things have to happen: First, you have to have ideas, and second, you have to figure a way into the inevitable groups that get set up to do the change,” said Mark Forman, who led the e-government effort at the Office of Management and Budget early in the first George W. Bush administration.

“Regardless of who is elected, you can be certain a new set of working groups are set up for change,” he added. “So someone who worked in the late 1990s on the last transition could dust off their binders and be seen by new people as a chance to accelerate the program.”

Those seeking to advance must do so with sensitivity, said Alan Balutis, senior director at Cisco Systems’ Internet Business Solutions Group and former CIO at the Commerce Department.

 “I think it’s always a time of opportunity to demonstrate your skills and capability and to do so not in a self-serving way but to indicate your interest and willingness to serve and help execute,” he said. “You’ve demonstrated your value to the individual and the new team. If that opens doors for you, good. If it just helps advance the agenda and make government and the nation better, that’s good, too.”
But Christopher Smith, former CIO at the Agriculture Department and now U.S. federal chief technology and innovation officer at Accenture, offered a contrary view. “This is really a time to focus on the nation and ensuring the new administration team hits the ground running and quickly makes a meaningful impact,” he said. “This is not the time to focus on you.”

Step 2: Maintain continuity

While it is likely that new leaders will bring new priorities and even complete reversals of direction, the job of career employees is to keep doing what they’re doing until they’re told otherwise. The transition veterans FCW interviewed said ongoing projects need to continue at full speed. Obama and his advisers will map out priorities for his second term in due time, but until then, work needs to go on.

“Many existing programs don’t rely on day-to-day leadership by political people,” said Sandra Bates, former commissioner of GSA’s Federal Technology Service and now an executive consultant at Topside Consulting Group. “You’ve got things to do, plans to make. Keep going. If you stop and wait, you’re wasting time and losing ground.”

Sandra Bates

Sandra Bates: Maintain ongoing
programs, don't wait for direction.

Although managers should be ready and have their own transition plans in place, nothing changes until the new leadership says it does. And even then, not everything will change, said Dennis Fischer, Bates’ predecessor at FTS.

“What the operational side of agencies does is not heavily impacted by political change,” said Fischer, who briefly served as GSA acting administrator in 1993. “There will be style and substance changes on the operational side of things, but if you’re in the [Department of Veterans Affairs] paying vet benefits or [at the Federal Aviation Administration] in an aircraft control tower, stuff goes on.”

Furthermore, because it is a second term, agency managers can count on the primary priorities staying place for at least a while, Evans said. “They’re executing out on the budget the president had submitted,” she said. “Whether the Congress has approved it, that’s a whole different issue. You’ve already put together what the priorities are in fiscal year 2013. That budget was submitted two years ago. So you know what the president’s priorities are, and you’re continuing on and executing out what the president’s priorities are.”

Step 3: Be prepared to pivot

Despite the continuity, shifts are guaranteed. New directions will emerge as new challenges arise, and newly appointed agency leaders will bring their own ideas to the job. The role of agency managers is to be ready to defend good programs and relinquish those that aren’t measuring up.

Obama’s second-term choices for agency leadership are apt to be similar in philosophy to their predecessors, Balutis said, but career managers should not make the mistake of treating them the same.

“It’s going to be a different person with a different personality,” he said. “They don’t come in with the idea of, ‘All I want to do is continue all those things my predecessor put on the table.’ Most of them want to make their own mark, they want to leave their own legacy, and they come in with their own ideas.”

The job of a career executive or manager is not to protect one’s turf, Evans said. It’s to help the new leaders make choices about the agency’s work.

“I would be very open and direct about what would work and what would not work and what it would take to make something work,” she said. “Then policy officials can make those determinations.”

“Part of your role is a long-term stewardship responsibility,” Balutis said. “You’re not there to serve a particular administration. The oath is to the country.”

Anne Armstrong, Frank Konkel, Troy K. Schneider, Camille Tuutti and Matthew Weigelt contributed to this report.


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