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The challenge of appointments

May. 2, 2014 - 02:22PM   |  
Mark Abramson
Mark Abramson (Staff)
Paul Lawrence


A front-page headline in the Washington Post on April 12 caught our attention: “For HHS hot seat, Obama chooses capable manager.” The article discussed the Obama administration’s selection of Sylvia Mathews Burwell to replace Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). That article, as well as much of the news coverage that week, emphasized the management challenges that will face HHS over the next two years as the federal government continues implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

While the press focused on the management problems encountered by Sebelius during the launch of, it is important to look back at the appointment of Kansas Gov. Sebelius in 2009 to understand her selection at that time. At the start of a new administration, the Office of White House Personnel must decide whether specific departments and agencies are predominantly facing either policy or management challenges. In the case of HHS, it was decided that the major task of the new secretary of HHS would be political in nature — to get a new health care law enacted by Congress. Because of the political nature of the job, the White House sought appointees with political skills for that position. The administration’s first choice for the job, former Sen. Tom Daschle, withdrew his nomination after questions arose about his taxes. Sebelius was then selected based on her tenure as a well-respected governor. She had also served eight years as Insurance Commissioner for the State of Kansas. Her selection received positive comments in the press.

In many ways, the transition from a policy-oriented person (Sebelius) to a manager (Burwell) is indicative of the stages of a two-term administration. The first term is usually dominated by new policy initiatives and getting new laws enacted. The second term is dominated by the tough work of implementing those new initiatives and new laws. During an interview for our book, What Government Does: How Political Executives Manage, Bill Taggart, former Chief Operating Officer of the Office of Federal Student Aid, told us, “There are two separate sets of skills — the implementers are not the policy folks and the policy makers are not implementers.” These two skill sets are seldom found in the same person.

The success of any administration is thus based on two key decisions:

■ Accurately defining the major challenge initially facing a department or agency.

■ Acknowledging when the initial challenge may have changed or been successfully accomplished (such as passage of a law).

When challenges facing an agency change, so too a change in agency leadership may be required. Frequently, this issue takes care of itself because of high turnover in agency leadership at the end of the first term or during the first year of the second term. When a job becomes newly vacant in the second term, the Office of White House Personnel is then able to “redefine” the job specifications for that position to better fit the 2014 challenges facing the next agency leader.

Another example of the administration turning to a manager is the White House’s selection of John Koskinen as commissioner of the IRS. Due to the 2013 controversy over agency review of 501 (c) (4) applications, the agency was in crisis. In commenting on the selection of Koskinen, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew stated, “With a distinguished record of turning around large companies and reorganizing the management and operations of highly complex public and private institutions, John is the right person to take on this critical position at this important time. Because John has a clear understanding of how to make organizations more effective and an unshakeable commitment to public service, he will be an exceptional leader who will strengthen the institution and restore confidence in the IRS.”

The selection of Burwell and Koskinen may be good indicators of the type of appointments that will become more frequent in the second term — the selection of managers who will be tasked to implement new policies and new laws passed in the first term. While the Obama administration came into office focusing on policy initiatives, it is likely they will emphasize management and implementation skills in the selection of appointees for their second term. ■

Paul R. Lawrence is a principal in Ernst & Young LLP’s Government Practice. Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. They are co-authors of the newly released book, What Government Does: How Political Executives Manage.

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