Surprises in store for political appointees

Political appointees from the private sector face a steep learning curve when joining the federal government.

Shutterstock image (by alphaspirit): Difficulties ahead for the businessman.
 

On the campaign trail, candidates often say the U.S. government needs to be run more like a business. But political appointees from the private sector need to be aware that government service is a little different from the business world, according to experts who participated in a panel discussion on Nov. 17 during the annual meeting of the National Academy of Public Administration.

Linda Springer, who was Office of Personnel Management director under President George W. Bush and is now a transition team leader for President-elect Donald Trump focusing on OPM issues, cautioned that political appointees with only private-sector experience might "find that the skill set and the attributes that made you successful as a leader may work against you."

Executives used to being in control of fast-paced decision-making will have to come to terms with the fact that government policy pivots and program changes are often dependent on year-long budget cycles and partnerships with Congress, she added.

There's a big difference between functioning in an autonomous setting and operating in an environment based on stakeholder consensus and "the board of 535 people at the other end of Pennsylvania Ave," Springer said. She added that it is important "to understand the time frames and the process but also to not let that dampen your enthusiasm or your interest" in government service.

Springer also stressed from the outset that there was nothing in her remarks that she would not have said three months ago.

Commerce Department Chief Financial Officer Ellen Herbst, who also spoke at the NAPA panel, said that when she joined the government, she had a hard time understanding where the risk aversion came from given that federal civil servants are rarely fired. Over time, she discovered that "the stakeholder community is larger, more diverse and more complex" than in the private sector.

It's also essential to learn "what you have the authority to do in terms of funding and what you have to go to Congress for," she added.

In addition, political appointees need to check their expectations about their role in setting policy. Herbst said people need to understand what that role will be before they submit to the long and sometimes grueling vetting and confirmation process.

"You should know whether you're going to have a seat at the table," she said. "If you're the deputy assistant secretary of whatever, many times [you're] not even in the room when the overarching policy decisions are made."

Springer agreed. "People coming to the highest agency leadership level -- deputy secretaries -- think they're going to set policy for their agency," she said, but policy direction and specifics are set on the campaign trail and in the White House. "It's important to understand where policy was set. Candidly, this should be done before you assume a position so you're in sync."

Springer also advised new officials to develop a good working relationship with their agency's inspector general to avoid surprises and obtain insights into the agency that might not be available through senior leaders. She also advised traveling to agency outposts on a regular basis to make connections with executives, union leaders and other key employees.

"Don't just assign it to the chief of staff or do it over the phone," Springer said. "You can't do it all the time, but there needs to be some face-to-face contact to get that perspective."

She also cautioned the small audience of mostly seasoned government managers, think-tank leaders and consultants that government administration is changing. "We can't fall into the…trap of assuming the world as we knew it eight years ago is present today," she said.

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