Transition tips for careerists

Making a good impression on new agency leaders serves you well, writes Alan Balutis, but it takes some finesse.

Alan Balutis

Now that the election is over, it is time to give some thought to the coming presidential and departmental transitions. Even though the Democrats retained the White House, a second term for President Barack Obama will bring changes as Cabinet secretaries leave and other senior officials move up and out.

Here is a list of do’s and don’ts for career managers looking for ways to work with the new administration.

1. DO establish a transition team for your area. Create a schedule if possible, and try to understand the context of the new appointees. Balance long- and short-term interests and rely on outside help to make your case, if appropriate. The team can prepare the new secretary and others, if appropriate, for confirmation hearings, including providing an assessment of the department’s strengths and weaknesses.

2. DON’T give short shrift to appointees’ ideas. Avoid responding to proposals by saying, “We tried that five years ago.” Remember that appointees are new to the process, and be supportive and responsive.

3. DON’T forget that career managers are responsible for the stewardship of the federal government until the new political team is in place. That stewardship can last for as long as a year after the election.

4. DO give written and oral orientation guidelines on federal workplace issues and ethics.

5. DO establish an agenda for your initial meeting with the presidential transition team. Give detailed briefings early in the process and tailor them to an individual’s experience and knowledge.

6. DON’T overdo it. You only reinforce the stereotype of a government bureaucrat when you show up for your first meeting with an armload of three-inch binders full of organizational and budget charts.

7. DON’T assume that the transition team members know all the acronyms and “inside baseball” terms. Start with the absolute basics until you establish the appointee’s level of understanding and degree of comfort.

8. DO make an effort to understand the background and professional goals of the new appointees. Have they worked in government before? What do they hope to accomplish during their service?

9. DON’T appear to be a back-stabber or focused on maintaining the status quo. Any bad ideas will usually fall out automatically so don’t fight the appointees. Try to constantly interact with them, and remember — to paraphrase the real estate mantra — the three most important things are listen, listen, listen.

10. DO stress cooperation between political and career managers to meet the secretary’s and the department’s goals. Almost all appointees leave government thanking the hardworking and dedicated careerists who helped them do their jobs well and stay out of trouble. The sooner you establish that relationship of mutual trust and appreciation, the better for everyone.

11. DON’T speak or write in bureaucratic language. Appointees will be looking for someone who can explain things clearly.

12. DO prepare a management pocket guide. At the Commerce Department, we created the “Management 101 Notebook,” a primer on the budget, travel, procurement and hiring practices. When preparing materials, career employees need to step back and view their work from an outsider’s point of view.

13. DON’T be a “yes” person. Careerists must speak their minds as professionals, and part of your obligation, as they say, is to “speak truth to power.” But remember that how you deliver that message is important.

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