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Five lessons for second-term political appointees

Jan. 20, 2013 - 03:17PM   |  

During our interviews over the past three years with political executives throughout government, we became acutely aware of the life cycle of an administration. All of the political executives we interviewed knew exactly the point in time (and life cycle) in which they entered the administration. Those who arrived in year two of the Obama administration described a far different experience to us from those who arrived during the first months of the administration. We discovered that the political executives developed an appropriate game plan for their tenure based on the point of their arrival.

As the Obama administration begins its second term Jan. 20, there will be many new appointees arriving throughout 2013. While it may be obvious that 2013 will differ from 2009, several key second-term lessons could prove useful to new appointees.

• Lesson One: Remember that you are coming in after a president was re-elected, not after a change of party.

When scholars talk about the tensions between political appointees and career executives, they are usually talking about tensions in transitions after a change in party. In those situations, there is frequently a high level of distrust between political appointees and careerists as new appointees often have a tendency to believe (usually incorrectly) that incumbent careerists will not be supportive of changes in policy. In the second term of a re-elected president, this is one less worry that new political executives will have. The career civil service has already been “on board” for four years in the service of the incumbent president and his political appointees. You won’t have to spend your time getting “buy in.”

• Lesson Two: Realize that you will be inheriting an existing policy agenda.

In most cases, you will not be coming in to set a new policy agenda. While there will clearly be additional policy initiatives during a second term, much of the policy direction has already been set. In describing this situation, Linda Springer, former director of the Office of Personnel Management, advises that “the new political leader must be aware of relevant agenda items and related commitments for which he or she will be responsible before striking out in new territory to develop new policies.” There will be opportunities for new initiatives, but you should be realistic about setting forth brand new ideas.

• Lesson Three: You will face the same issues that new executives confront in all organizations — the new-kid-on-the-block scenario.

You will be the “new kid” to two distinct groups: your fellow political appointees and the career civil service. In cases where you will be working for a Cabinet secretary who also served in the first term, he or she will likely have a political team that has been in place for nearly four years. Some of that team might even go back to the 2008 presidential election. Like all new arrivals, you will need to get to know the team in place and earn its trust and respect.

To a lesser degree, the same will be true with career civil service members. They will likely have served many political executives before your arrival, but will be eager to meet you and get to know you. You should be receptive to discussing what they have done and why. You can leverage their experiences in the second term.

• Lesson Four: You have the potential to make a real difference by institutionalizing change and reforms either already in place or just being put in place.

In Lesson One, we discussed the policy agenda likely already in place. In contrast, the management agenda and management reform are ongoing and will require your time and energy so no momentum is lost from first-term initiatives. Institutionalizing change and new approaches often take longer than one term (and often two terms). One of your first activities in your new job should be learning about the management initiatives already in place that will require your support and encouragement. While the initiatives might have been started during somebody else’s watch, you now have the obligation to oversee their fruition. A fresh perspective can often identify valuable fine-tuning and enhancement opportunities.

• Lesson Five: You are still the boss and have a real opportunity to make a difference.

While the second term is different from the first term, there are still numerous opportunities for you to serve the nation and make a real difference, whether it is bringing previous policy and management initiatives to fruition or launching new initiatives. There is still much to be done.

Paul R. Lawrence is a principal in Ernst & Young LLP’s Government Practice. His email: Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His email: They are co-authors of the newly released revised edition of “Paths to Making a Difference: Leading in Government.”

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