Can't we all just get along?

Some friction between senior careerists and political appointees is inevitable, but a little empathy can go a long way.

Image: Shutterstock / Lemberg Vector Studio

As a new administration continues working to fill its key leadership slots -- and as some longtime IT leaders have been moved to new roles -- the issue of how senior career leaders and political or temporary appointees get along is squarely back in the public debate.

To summarize the issue, the federal workforce is made up of two basic groups. The permanent workforce is generally hired under a rule-based merit system that emphasizes skills, knowledge and abilities with some weighting going to veterans’ preferences and affirmative-action considerations. The temporary or non-career workforce generally comes and goes and is appointed by the administration based on far more flexible criteria. These hires are often referred to as political appointees.

When both groups are thrust into the demanding atmosphere of doing the government’s business, conflicts can arise. Often the simplistic view is that career staff is concerned about keeping the existing operation going while political appointees are focused on implementing the president’s agenda. Legends abound about the clashes that take place. Career staff often are labeled as bureaucrats who only see what’s written in the law or regulations. Political appointees in turn are often labeled as hacks whose daddies donated to the president’s campaign.

The shame of it is that these disputes and biases do not result in a better government. Partisanship in any form shortcuts our government and the citizens it serves. So how should the system work to the government’s and citizens’ advantage?

As with any dispute or bias, some grain of truth perpetuates the situation. Career staff is indeed responsible for day-to-day operations and is measured that way. If your job is to ensure the trains run on time, you’re measured and rewarded on metrics of timeliness and quality. Being on time when it suits you is not an option and others will replace you who are better at keeping things moving.

Political appointees, from the cabinet secretaries down to Schedule C clerical assistants, have railed about career staff that is tone deaf to the administration's priorities. These more-or-less temporary employees feel a sense of urgency that career staff often do not.

As with assembling any high-performance team, the key is building a team with common goals and understanding of the path ahead and with empathy for other teammates. Career staff and political appointees must place themselves in the other person’s shoes and understand why they see the world differently.

The key to this understanding is knowing where the other team members originated and how they got to the team in the first place. Having an appointee who worked for a small business in the private sector will bring a different perspective than the ex-CEO of Goldman Sachs. Likewise, the career staffer who started as a GS-2 in the mailroom will differ from an Ivy Leaguer who came to government as a Presidential Management Fellow.

Leaders from each side of the aisle—careerists as well as appointees—can make all the difference. Subordinates see and often emulate the behavior of their leaders. Early in the transition of a new administration, careerists need a transition plan, a knowledge of appointee backgrounds and a rudimentary understanding of the new political priorities. Often the biggest schisms develop from ignorance or misperceptions.

Political appointees have a challenging task. They often don’t know much about the organization or function they now serve. Worse, they may have misconceptions about the agency or believe it is in worse shape than the public realizes. In some cases appointees believe the organization is in a “rescue” situation and that they are facing the daunting task of setting it straight.

A few deep breaths and a personal reset are needed by both groups. Not all appointees are hacks whose parents donated to the winning campaign. Many came to make a difference and to try to make the government more responsive to those it serves. They are often wrong, but never in doubt.

Similarly, not all careerists are mindless bureaucrats. They are often more frustrated by hidebound rules than the new appointees are. They may have a weariness brought on by yet another new “expert” here to save us from ourselves. In their worst case they can engage in “malicious compliance.” They do as told even if they know spectacular failure will result.

Finally, both groups need to understand they share in each other’s successes and failures. Seeing each other’s differences as assets to be tallied and valued is key to an organization that can do extraordinary things.

About the Author

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.


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