By Steve Kelman

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The Lectern: Working with career feds

Faithful readers of this blog who also have good memories may remember that I have been interviewing a number of senior political executives from the Clinton and Bush administrations who were nominated as having attempted major strategic redirections of their agencies. I recently interviewed one of the nominees, James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under President Clinton. As many readers will be aware, FEMA went through a period of being an agency turnaround story in-between its troubled pre-Witt past and its even-more troubled post-Witt present. Witt himself had been head of emergency management in Arkansas under Clinton as governor; he's a personable Southern "good ole boy" type who (as I remember it being noted at the time) has no college degree.


The interview was peppered with many of the phrases common from Al Gore's reinventing government effort that, unfortunately in significant measure, have been lost during the current administration, such as customer service and empowerment of frontline employees. But the most important recurring theme in the Witt interview was the importance for political appointees of working with, trusting and seeking to inspire career feds.


Witt discussed proudly how he significantly reduced the number of political appointees at FEMA, had a career civil servant as his chief of staff, and populated the director's office almost exclusively with career FEMA officials. His "open door" policy was designed to give career employees at all levels access to him. An important element of his approach towards turning FEMA around was to encourage career folks to feel proud and invested in a FEMA that worked.


This is another management area where the attitudes of this administration haven't, in general, been great. Many career folks I know, in a number of agencies, have noted a deterioration in career/political relationships, compared with the previous administration. To spread the blame in a bipartisan way, however, the trend towards reducing the number of career folks in senior agency positions has, unfortunately, been pursued by both parties.


Will the new political appointees who come in after the 2008 election, whether Democrats or Republicans, learn from James Lee Witt?

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 19, 2008 at 12:09 PM


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