Jan 07 2009

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An Insiders Guide to Success in Government

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With the Cabinet named, the Obama transition/administration will now focus on sub-cabinet postings and agency heads; the officials who will be the day-to-day implementers of the new Administration’s agenda.

Public service, always an honor, will be critical in the weeks and months ahead.   For some, this will be the first intoxicating taste of a very different type of career. Many of the rest have been here before, during the Clinton years, and are now poised to assume greater responsibility at more senior levels.

As someone who has been in the trenches as a presidential appointee for 12 years in two different administrations, I offer the following hard learned lessons that can make the new appointee both effective and successful.

Mission, Budget & Personnel: this is your first priority. Simply put, everything you do after you are sworn-in will depend on how much money you have and the people who implement the agenda. Get the budget and people right at the beginning and program success will follow. Fail to bring this under control and you will rarely get a second chance later.

As you are looking to staff up, put a priority on finding someone in a position of trust who understands government budgeting and personnel rules in detail and can explain them in the context of your program to help you sort out governing options.

The time period right after a change in Administrations, is part wild-west in the Executive Branch, and it is the best time to make any organizational changes to support the mission. If you wait a year or two until you get to know your organization better, you’ve missed your window.

A common mistake for new, senior politicos is to jump into the programmatic side, looking to score a quick victory that may provide notice of your value and political virtue. There will be time for that. Get your house in order first, and the successes will follow.

Fix & Focus Your Priorities: before you take the oath of office, seriously think through what you want to accomplish. Time is your enemy in this job. Four or eight years seems like a long time, but in government, it just melts so much faster. Your list should fit on a 3×5 card and should have no more than five items; three is better.  Keep this in your desk or your pocket at all times. Bring a constructive impatience to implementing that agenda.

Within days of walking into your job, you will be faced with a myriad of issues, problems, policy choices and potentially fresh and altering opportunities which can quickly unravel any coherent plan for the future. Some managers, faced with this myriad of challenges, simply try to do too much and in the end accomplish nothing.

Gather your team, and talk through your vision. Inoculate them so that they can repeat your priorities as their guide in day to day issues. Your discipline in focusing on and communicating your priorities to your staff will be pivotal to your success.

Identify Legacy Issues Early: most agencies will have prepared the famed “30-60-90 Day” papers as one of your first briefs. It will have the key decisions that need to be made by the new team, early on, based on actions from the previous Administration. Don’t allow these issues to take over 90% of your time as you move forward. Identify what needs fixing early and get teams working on resolution quickly, so you can stay focused on the bigger picture.

Avoid the “blame game.” After January 20th, you own it, lock, stock and barrel. Bring the skill sets and talents of your team to solve problems, and change priorities. Don’t be too proud to advance initiatives that originated with the previous Administration that are successful. Build on them.

Collegiality & Communication: no official is an island and no department, agency or bureau exists without the consent or support of others in the Executive branch or Congress. Do your outreach early, identify the lines of authority and maintain your relationships. Good will and common purpose are never higher than at the beginning of a new Administration, but that falls off fast as time goes on and issues arise.

OMB: the program humbler, the final arbiter of resources, and the repository of budgetary theology that trumps every other concern. You ignore it at your own peril.

The Office of Management & Budget (OMB) is mistakenly seen as a backwater of narrow-minded bean counters, and dismissed for its “administrative” functions on regulations and circulars. But in reality, OMB has truly enormous power. It should be one of your first stops.

Bring your management team to meet theirs. Find out who your examiner(s) is/are and go visit and cultivate a relationship. The right examiner is a force multiplier and will pay  big dividends down the road.

Executive Branch Colleagues: former Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) once famously brought together all the agency and department heads of the Trade Policy Coordinating Committee (TPCC) run by the Department of Commerce.

As the name implies, TPCC is supposed to ensure that support for US trade and investment by the USG is more effectively coordinated. In his typically dry and deadly effective way, Sarbanes asked a simple question to see how well things were going; he asked if any of the Principals testifying knew each other or had met with each other.

Few did.

Coordination is a “force multiplier.” As a practical matter, new leaders can reach out to those other agencies and departments with complementary missions and bring the full weight of their programs to key Presidential objectives. The rewards can be significant, as the recent US Inter-agency mission to Georgia points out, but it takes sustained work.

Congress: As a matter of courtesy, protocol and survival, you need to reach out early and often to your appropriations and authorizing committees and subcommittees. Put them on your check list for new initiatives and keep a keen ear for the priorities of subcommittee and committee chairs as you develop your own plans. Transparency here is more than good politics, its good policy.

Partisanship is a fact of life in Washington, and in some programs more than others. Showing respect to both sides of the aisle is not only fair and constructive, it will build broader long-term support for your program as the political landscape alters.

And don’t let your position go to your head and insist on meeting only with Members. Staff, staff, staff. That 20-something across the table may look like an intern, but is probably the key person for the Member or the Committee. Poison this well at your own risk. Meet, talk, extend courtesies, and create relationships. They will pay dividends later on.

Stakeholders: Almost every government agency or department has private sector or non-government organizations that are interested in your activities; some friendly and some less so. Talk to all of them.  Exclusion or isolation only leads to bigger problems down the road.

Don’t Fear the Career Staff: these folks have been at the receiving end of pretty much every political campaign in modern times, and remain an abstract force of evil in most speeches on government spending and overreach.

The Bureaucracy; bloated, entitled, meddling agenda-driven, ineffective and territorial. There will always be an exception that proves the rule, but as a practical matter, leave the campaign rhetoric at the door when you come in; you’re going to be surprised.

The people I have known in career public service, have been educated, talented, creative, flexible, motivated, experienced and above all, dedicated. These folks are a huge resource for an incoming Administration. The problem is that many politicos mistakenly look at career people as the institutional opposition, and surround themselves with a praetorian guard of politicals that builds walls and reduces organizational effectiveness.

You will no doubt come in with fresh ideas and proposals, looking both to make a mark for yourself, implementing the President’s agenda. Have enough confidence to talk to your best career people before you get too far down the road. They have been witnesses to program effectiveness and the enormous effort in time and money that have been thrown against failed objectives. Your career people can serve as an early warning sign or fail safe on how to implement the most effective policy proposals and initiatives.

Remember the Public Trust: Your position is temporary but very powerful and certainly intoxicating. You will be treated differently by friends and colleagues, sought out for favors or advice, invited to the best parties.  Abroad, you will meet with senior leaders and even heads of state. It is a very heady transition from citizen to public servant. It can drive the best person to forget the reason they came to Washington or the maxim that with great power comes great responsibility.

You’ll be most effective if you put your ego in a blind trust for the tenure of your service, or barring that, find a good friend who will tell you the truth if you get too haughty.  If you’re going to do something that doesn’t feel right, talk to your General Counsel. A five minute call can save your reputation and keep you out of The Washington Post. Ignore gut checks at your own peril.

Remember Colin Powell’s Rule #3: “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.”

Conclusion: Follow the rules, and you’ll be successful in your new position.

Also, remember, this isn’t “West Wing.” It is never that orderly and informed, or witty. Human decision making is always hampered by poor coordination and incomplete information…everywhere. Improvisation and ingenuity become valued skill sets.

And everyone will want a piece of you. The pressure is real and unrelenting, and at times it seems as if you have in-coming on all sides.  Still, if you don’t question why you took the job at least once, you’re not exploiting it to its full potential.

But if you bring your talent and commitment to the table each day you will realize, years after the events that shape your tenure, that these were the best of times, when you were in the fight, consequential and committed. Appointees of all Administrations recognize that these are the times when personal idealism becomes a means of practical governing, a means to reach beyond yourself. It is why so many come back into government service, despite the higher pay in the private sector.

It also creates intense and warm memories for a lifetime.

Good luck to each of you.

Duffy and the loyal opposition will be watching….


  1. Marielle

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    1. C2

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