I’ve worked my way up to being a supervisor, but I still don’t feel like I’m an insider. The top floor isn’t interested in my views on what the agency should do. Also, I’ve lost out on promotions a couple of times recently to people less qualified than me; one didn’t even have any experience in our agency. I know it’s cronyism, and now I’m ready to get off my high horse and join in. How can I become a crony?
Signed, Boss Tweed
First promise that you will only use cronyism for good. Promise? OK then …
Cronyism is based on trust. The pattern between political officials and their business cronies is familiar from any number of news stories: The business gives the official a campaign contribution, or use of the corporate jet, or gives his nephew a lucrative job. The business lets the official know how he can help them; maybe shaping a Request for Proposals so they will have a competitive advantage, or inserting language in a bill to give them a tax break.
But how can the business know that the official will help them in return for what they gave him? They cannot sue him if he fails to deliver, because a court will not enforce a contract for bribery. They rely on both sides wanting an ongoing relationship. If the official comes through for his benefactor, then there will be future contributions or plane rides, and the nephew will keep his job. If they both trust that each will help the other in order to preserve the relationship, then they are cronies.
People who do not have a corporate jet to lend out can build crony relationships through partisan politics. Volunteering in campaigns and serving as unpaid interns or low-paid staff to elected officials can start building the relationship. If the politician becomes sufficiently impressed with the crony’s loyalty, she may place him in a plum job. But this path is too uncertain for those of us who like a steady job.
Your challenge is to build a crony relationship with your agency’s officials, even though appointed officials typically stay in the same job only a few years. You can do it by adopting the same short time horizon as the appointee. When he announces a pet project, do not talk about how similar efforts failed before he came to the agency, or how this one is doomed to fail a few years from now after he has moved on. Instead, help rally attention and enthusiasm for the current effort. When the official is in a pinch to get something done, volunteer the efforts of yourself and the people you supervise. This will force you to juggle your workload, so prioritize what will solve the official’s immediate problem. Sacrifice the work which would only show results in the long term.
When the appointee moves on and a new one comes in, you must build a new crony relationship. Even if the new appointee is from the same political party as the previous one, she will want to put her own stamp on the agency. Stop cheerleading for the previous official’s pet projects. You are not likely to catch blame for the failure of efforts that started before the new official arrived, because she will not need a scapegoat. She can respond to criticism by acknowledging that mistakes were made before she arrived, and promising to correct them now that she is in charge. Do not offer her much advice until you have learned what she wants to do, then be hyper-responsive to that.
I have seen this strategy of pandering to successive appointed officials over a period of years work, to advance an employee to the top career position in an agency. I have not done it myself, because I do not have the temperament for it. Cronyism is not for everybody.
Dear Bureaucrat provides the federal workforce with the opportunity to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the public sector. Reed has spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for large contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and is a frequent speaker at public administration conferences.
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