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Career employees face adjustment period with new political appointees

Election will bring in slew of new bosses, some new to government

Sep. 25, 2012 - 11:38AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Stanley Meiburg, deputy regional administrator, EPA Region 4, speaks at the Senior Executives Association's Succeeding During an Election Year and Through Transition conference Sept. 18 in Washington.
Stanley Meiburg, deputy regional administrator, EPA Region 4, speaks at the Senior Executives Association's Succeeding During an Election Year and Through Transition conference Sept. 18 in Washington. (File)

Whoever wins November’s presidential election, top civil servants can expect new faces in the ranks of their politically appointed bosses.

How to make those relationships work? Don’t take sides, make sure the boss has options and try to learn from both good and bad appointees, one veteran employee advises.

“In any kind of change, there are opportunities,” Stanley Meiburg, deputy regional administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Atlanta office, told a forum hosted by the Senior Executives Association, which represents career members of the Senior Executive Service.

Keep in mind that the average political appointee serves for only a couple of years and in many cases will start with no background in government work, added Marianne Horinko, a top EPA political appointee in the Bush administration.

She likened the role of career civil servants to that of a school safety patrol. Make sure, for example, that appointees are familiar with government ethics requirements, Horinko said. Should they then run afoul of those restrictions, she said, “they will do so of their own volition and not because you did not warn them.”

Appointees must also be up to speed on procedures for handling emergencies and must be ready to effectively discuss their agencies’ work with the media, she said.

In all, there are about 3,000 political posts throughout the federal government, including presidential nominees requiring Senate confirmation and “Schedule C” appointees, who typically carry the title of special assistant, says Mark Abramson, a consultant and co-author of a book on government leadership.

Dealing with political transitions is part of the job, said Alan Swendiman, a Senior Executive Service member at the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A new administration will have its own agenda, he said. Career employees understand that they’re “part of the force that implements those priorities and those programs.”

A victory by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney would mean wholesale turnover among political appointees. But even if President Obama is re-elected, many current officeholders will likely move on.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, has already said that she will step down after the election.

Either way, the role of career senior executives “is to be neutral and competent in presenting information,” said John Kamensky, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for The Business of Government. “They are not there to advocate a policy position one way or the other.”

Winning the trust of new political appointees generally takes time, said Kamensky, who served in the Clinton administration. “They think that the existing career executives are committed to the agenda of whoever was in office last,” he said.

But in a 2008 survey of Bush administration appointees, almost 90 percent said working with career executives was “very important” to getting their jobs done. Asked to list their top three recommendations for fostering a strong partnership, the appointees responded: listening, trusting and communicating.

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