Obama team must start fast

President Barack Obama’s agency appointees are feeling an unusual sense of urgency as they take on their new roles.

Typically, agency employees spend a lot of time acclimating new appointees to the agencies’ policies, procedures and missions. However, there’s pressure on new appointees to get up-to-speed fast because of the crises facing the government, said Edward DeSeve, a senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government and author of “The Presidential Appointee’s Handbook.”

Advice for newcomers

In “The First 90 Days in Government,” Michael Watkins and Peter Daily offer some fundamental
principles for transitions and suggest that appointees and career government employees:

Build on what’s been done to get faster results.
Establish top priorities.
Build a leadership team whose communication and collaboration processes enable it to make decisions while staying nimble.
Secure early successes to generate momentum.
Create supportive alliances.

Obama’s appointees will have to learn the mission and culture of their agencies as they go, said DeSeve, who has also been controller and deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and the Housing and Urban Development Department’s chief financial officer.

“Change is in the air, on the ground and in the water, and there is a crisis upon us,” DeSeve said. “With those two things, people have to be ready to start as soon as they can. Change has a short shelf life. The people who are going to be agents of that change need to be ready as soon as Day One.” Appointees need to create an environment of accountability and performance by immediately putting their leadership abilities into action, DeSeve said.

Priority list

According to Edward DeSeve, author of “The Presidential Appointee’s Handbook,” top government leaders need to:

Deliver organized information quickly to a wide audience.
Lead for results.
Manage change.
Provide technical ability while learning about the regulatory and legislative processes.
Lead others through motivation, political savvy and communication.
Develop self-awareness, integrity and dedication to public service.

The Obama administration’s appointees must have skills in technology and performance management.

That’s “where the expectations that the administration has set for getting results will cause these appointees to have to demonstrate quickly that they can get results,” he said.

Appointees must be practical and intuitive and use creative thinking to meet challenges, he added. Optimism can motivate others while they innovate and implement changes.

Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, a Web site about the intersection between the Internet and politics, said appointees must incorporate collaborative tools to help agencies reorient themselves. Obama used social-networking and collaborative technologies to good effect in his campaign, and he has said he plans to continue to do so as president.

Although handheld communications devices are ubiquitous, many people don’t know how to use them well as collaborative tools, Rasiej said. For example, under the old model, appointees might receive a briefing book to explain agency issues, policies and procedures.

Under the new model, the briefing book might include access to a wiki that new appointees and longtime employees can use to make notes, ask questions and file comments. Then all those people, working collaboratively with the agency leader, can see those changes, Rasiej said.

With the old-school approach, any changes to the briefing book would involve a lengthy process of collecting materials, holding meetings and issuing memos.

“By putting briefing material into wiki form, a new leader can make his or her comments, and they can be seen by any team members that the appointee gives permission to,” Rasiej said.

Despite the new challenges, the Obama administration faces the same barriers that are common to any organizational transition, said Michael Watkins, chairman of Genesis Advisers and co-author of “The First 90 Days in Government.” Watkins has surveyed new political appointees and career officials and found that they often distrust and underestimate one another. However, appointees must build a productive relationship with the career officials on whom they depend, Watkins said during a recent workshop sponsored by the Council for Excellence in Government, the Senior Executives Association and Harvard Business Publishing.

“Something as simple as a framework for structuring that process could make a huge difference, [rather] than going at it ad hoc and going about it in an unstructured way,” he said.

Among some fundamental principles, Watkins said new leaders must learn about and build on what exists, establish their priorities, and define the intent of their strategies.

Appointees also need to adopt different leadership and transition styles for different situations, he said.

“With the Obama administration, we know we are in a national turnaround,” Watkins said. “If you can pick up a framework for transition and apply that across government and a common language, you could accelerate the transition.”

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