Being the new addition is tough, whether that’s at school, in town or at the highest echelons of government.
In Washington. D.C., the on-ramp for new leaders is steeper, shorter, elevated for public scrutiny and potholed with the footprints of big shoes to fill.
Becoming a presidential appointee in the middle of a term can be especially tough, according to a Jan. 19 report by the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition and Boston Consulting Group.
In the past six months, about 230 people have been confirmed by the Senate to begin work under the Biden administration, whose leadership is well underway. Recent examples include Geoffrey Pyatt, confirmed in September to assistant secretary for energy resources at the State Department, and Alex Wagner, installed in July as the assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs
“It can feel intimidating to enter a new role midway through an administration because there are relationships in place, processes in place, and individuals might feel like they’re playing catch up,” said Valerie Smith Boyd, director for the center, in an interview. “What we’ve heard from political appointees joining at any point in an administration is that they have the authority and the responsibility to be proactive and ask questions, develop relationships [and] gather information.”
To ease the transition, the Partnership compiled advice for senior officials who are coming into new roles from 15 current and former officials across administrations. Here’s what they said.
Get into the nitty gritty
Interviewees urged new leaders to understand their new authority, personnel and budget. Many appointees described hitting the ground running, with “little to no time to learn once they started the job.”
To cope, officials recommended asking questions early, meeting with predecessors, learning the chain of command and introducing yourself to other agencies whose responsibilities intersect.
The good news, one interviewee said, is the federal workforce is not bifurcated with politicos and career civil servants constantly butting heads; relationships are practical.
“You’ve got a lot of career folks who have been … working on a prior team, priorities and policies and implementing them in good faith,” another official said. “Making sure they knew you value their perspective was really key.”
Others noted that tough choices will be inevitable because not every legal obligation an agency has is adequately funded.
“You can learn a lot about what you need to do from a policy standpoint first by understanding what your legal and regulatory mandate is,” one appointee said. “I think the trick for most political appointees is to figure out how do you get [something] done so you’re complying with both the letter and spirit of the legislation.”
Teamwork as a tool
Build a team with who you have, interviewees said, and take stock of vacancies and employee morale when you first take office.
Leaders of the executive branch may have to do more — or at least as much — with less, as many federal agencies have reported low staffing levels and persistent vacancies due to lengthy hiring processes, meager budgets or recruiting shortfalls for their civil service.
Turnover for federal employees, especially senior executives, is higher in the first few years of a new administration than at other times, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“I thought that we would be mostly staffed up on our confirmed personnel well within year one,” an official who began near the start of the Biden administration said in the survey. “We’re well through year two at this point and we’re not very close to having all our confirmed personnel.”
Boyd said leaders may confront legal requirements and constraints, judicial interpretation and even technological or operational limitations. Appointees need to sit down with civil servants and understand what recommendations are actionable, whether from the Government Accountability Office, the inspector general or career employees.
One former civil servant also reminded appointees that changes in agency leadership can be stressful for career staff and that transparency, communication and a willingness to collaborate go a long way.
“I think political appointees — in particular at senior levels — have to be conscious of that mental shift and the fact that folks have been doing things a certain way for a certain period of time … and it may take a minute,” one respondent said.
Check your priorities
All leaders interviewed agreed that decision-making should be well communicated throughout an agency.
Don’t be afraid to stumble into structure while you get a feel for what works, respondents said.
“It took us a while ... to nail the right cadence of oversight meetings by the deputy and the secretary and the enterprise … One piece [of advice is] to get to the institutional management piece quickly.”
Some of the examples officials gave included creating new meetings to get through immediate deadlines, educating themselves on the paperwork process and setting priorities ruthlessly in the face of bureaucracy.
“You just have to accept [that you] cannot fix all of the things in the building,” advised one chief of staff. “Leaders must have a concrete set of priorities, milestones and initiatives to track over time.”
Not just appointees
Though the survey was conducted with high-level leaders in mind, Boyd said the advice can be useful for anyone in government.
After all, she said, it takes partnership between agency heads and career federal employees to deliver results, and strong appointees will inspire those they lead to pursue a long career in government, in turn fortifying the talent pipeline against presidential churn.
“Big problems are hard. There are reasons that that certain problems haven’t been solved,” she said. “And it’s only when you combine the the urgency and optimism of political appointees with the wisdom and experience of career civil servants that you that you create the right team to solve major problems.”
To read the full report, click here.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.