Are New Political Appointees Ready to Govern?

Political appointees come from all walks of life and all sorts of backgrounds. Some understand and have worked in government, while others know little or nothing about how Washington works (when it does). A new appointee has to learn how to work within his/her agency, how to work with the White House (the Office of Management and Budget in particular), other agencies, the Congress, and the public. Many come with the idea that they are there to change the world. The fact that they are appointed by the President leads many to conclude they have tremendous power to enact the President’s policies and priorities. Their sense of urgency is high, their goals are far-reaching, and their desire to do good is often off the scale.

Appointee, meet Reality – Reality, meet Appointee.
It doesn’t take long for reality to rudely intrude and bring even the most dedicated professionals down to earth. Simply being appointed by the President or a member of his Cabinet does not bring with it the power to successfully execute significant changes in government. The ability of other agencies, the Congress and coutless other stakeholders to put up roadblocks is maddening. And as if that isn’t enough, they run headlong into the federal budget, procurement and HR processes. Faced with those realities, is it any wonder the average tenure of a political appointee is 18-24 months? Every appointee knows that statistic and understands (1) they serve at the pleasure and (2) Presidents are elected for 4 years at a time. Appointees see the ticking clock and act as if they are running a sprint to the finish line. They will work obscene numbers of hours for the few years they are in government to make certain they can accomplish some good. That collides with a career workforce that cannot possibly work at that pace and work those hours for 20 to 30 years. Even with 31 years as a career employee, I found myself pushing my staff so hard that one seasoned and highly respected career SES told me I had successfully made the transition to being an appointee because I expected everything immediately. I had to admit he was right. My view of what was doable was influenced by the knowledge that my time was limited.

During 31 years as a career federal employee and 2 years as a political appointee, I found the process for onboarding appointees was generally inadequate to prepare them for the enormous responsibilities they are taking on. As an appointee, many of my colleagues were so frustrated with government and so disappointed by the difficulty in effecting real change that they were ready to leave government. They had the passion, drive and real-world skills, but were struggling to effect real change.

What can be done to make it more likely these motivated individuals will be successful? A number of studies in recent years have identified the problem and dozens of recommendations for fixes. One of the best studies was published by the Partnership for Public Service. Ready to Govern, published in January 2010, identified a number of actionable steps that can be taken to improve the quality of Presidential transitions. Many of the Ready to Govern recommendations can also be applied throughout the term of an Administration to ensure its appointees are effective. Ready to Govern and other studies consistently recommend training for all new appointees. To be most effective, the training must occur early in their appointment (or even before) and should address the budget, procurement, and HR processes, and the ethics restrictions covering appointees. The Obama Administration implemented a successful Presidential Appointee Leadership Program to provide training for new appointees. When I was in the Administration, I participated in the program and helped train over 1,000 appointees. The interest in government, enthusiasm for the public good, and superb quality of the appointees was tremendously inspiring. In addition to the White House program, in the past year the Partnership for Public Service has worked with a group of experienced former career SES and political appointees to develop a series of Ready to Govern courses for new appointees. I have been privileged to work with them and serve as faculty for several of the sessions. We have piloted the program and gotten tremendous feedback on its effectiveness and real world applicability. 

Programs such as these can equip appointees with the information they need to be successful in government. In addition, they need agency-specific training regarding mission, structure, budget and employee data (demographics, Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and Best Places to Work results). It is critical to understand what is happening internally – why the agency exists and how it gets its funding. Appointees also need to understand how the agency workforce views the place if they hope to work closely with the career workforce to get their priorities accomplished.

An effective government-wide training program that provides the broad government view, combined with agency-specific onboarding programs that provde a deeper understanding of their own agencies, can help ensure that political appointees are truly Ready to Govern.

T & T

Sequester, budget pressure, politics and conference scandals are leading many agencies to make cuts to their travel and training budgets. Cutting “T&T” is not new. Anyone who has worked in the training field knows one of the first line items to get cut is training. Why is that? Is training so undervalued that budget cutters think there is too little return on investment to justify the cost?

Sadly, the answer is usually yes. HR and Learning professionals have not done enough to show the returns investments in training are generating. Sometimes that is because they really do not know the ROI. Other times it is because there is none. More often, we simply have not done enough to make the business case for training. Absent a compelling business case, training can and does suffer during budget drills. Leaders who constantly say “people are our most important resource” will cut the dollars that might deliver a better-skilled and more engaged “most important resource.” Is there a solution?

Yes, but it is not easy, and it may require some tough decisions. Here are 4 things you should do if you want to keep training dollars in the budget.

  1. Make a mission case for the training. A mission case, much like a business case, clearly demonstrates how the training dollars will support the agency’s mission. If there is no mission case to be made, find a better use for the money before someone else does.
  2. Build support for the program. A big training program that has the full support of the Chief Learning Officer (CLO), Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO) or Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) and no one else has a target painted on it. In particular, focus on the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) or equivalent. If the CFO is on your side, you have some support when the tough budget calls are being made. Those decisions are often made in one-on-one meetings between the agency head or deputy and the CFO. In addition to the CFO, the training program needs a champion. The people who lead the mission or support area that benefits from the program have to be its champion. If they are not, the program is vulnerable and will be cut.
  3. Establish discrete line items for key training programs. It is easy to give the order to cut a percentage of training dollars when the dollars do not have a program face. It is harder to cut training for the agency’s core mission workforce, or for the acquisition workforce, or for the leaders who will help move the Agency forward and get the workforce more engaged. A budget that is simply for “training” that will be parsed out during the year as needs arise is a target. It can and will be cut.
  4. Establish credibility by eliminating waste in training. I have been told (no joke) “all training is good.” No, it is not. Some training is feel-good or boondoggle training that is used to reward good performers or get poor performers out of the way for a while. In today’s budget climate we simply cannot afford to spend training dollars that way. The CLO/CHCO/CHRO and everyone who works for them must take the lead in cutting waste out of training. That does not mean cut your own budget. It means doing the hard work of ensuring training dollars are being spent on the real needs of the organization. I have never seen an organization that had more training dollars than it needed. Cutting the waste means you have dollars to apply to the pressing learning needs of the organization.

If you go to the budget battle armed with a mission case, a team of strong supporters, and a budget that shows clearly where the money will go, and with credibility you earned by making tough decisions on spending, and you are far better equipped to come away with the dollars you need. If any of those are missing, the budget sharks are circling and you may be chum in the water.

Excerpt from my interview on In Depth with WFED’s Francis Rose