A strong motivation for political appointees in coming to Washington is the opportunity to positively influence policy – to make a difference. Senior level appointees may bring the expectation of setting a portion of the administration’s agenda related to their agency’s mission. This is particularly likely for a first time appointee who hasn’t experienced or operated within the government complex previously. In fact, the very characteristics that enabled executives to set and achieve goals in the private sector - decisive, directive, risk taker - may actually undermine their prospects for success as government officials.
The new executive level appointee must distinguish whether he or she is in the driver’s seat or is a passenger in the agenda setting process. It is crucial to understand who really drives federal agency policy agendas and steps that newly appointed leaders can take to be influential contributors, regardless of their role.
A new Administration’s agenda has its roots in the Presidential campaign. The then-Presidential candidate is surrounded by advisors that help establish key policy positions. These positions, particularly those with associated specific actions, are further developed during the post-election transition period where the focus expands to include implementation. Unless you are one of those pre-inaugural advisors, the foundation for part or all of your agency’s agenda has already been set by someone else, at least directionally, prior to your invitation to join the administration as a political appointee. Needless to say, this is even more likely to be the case in a mid-term or second term appointment. Regardless of timing, the new political leader must be aware of relevant agenda items and related commitments for which he or she will be responsible before striking out in new territory to develop new policies.
The newly appointed leader is expected to support the administration’s agenda and needs to be quickly briefed on that agenda. However, the briefing process may be leveraged to reveal opportunities to provide policy refinements and other forms of influence. It may also become apparent that there are other initiatives the appointee has in mind that have not yet been considered. Fitting these new initiatives into the overarching direction and philosophy of the already articulated goals will increase the prospects that those suggestions will be favorably received. While the pre-existing agenda will be a priority, the appointee may well be asked to drive this additional agenda.
Some of the President’s closest agenda-setting advisors reside in organizations that are outside of the agency structure in the Executive Office of the President (EOP). Several of these offices were established by Congress and have a statutory mission that includes policy development. A few examples are:
The White House Office, itself an EOP entity, includes other central policy setting offices including:
New political leaders would be well-advised to learn more about EOP offices with portfolios related to the agency they will be serving, including key personnel. For more senior appointees, it may be appropriate or even anticipated that you reach out to those offices for a briefing. Establishing a trusted relationship could support the opportunity to contribute to shaping or suggesting additional policy initiatives.
Newly appointed leaders should learn the historical and expected responsibilities of their agency or office. It’s important to understand both policy establishment and administration roles. While these are considerations that should have been examined when contemplating an offer to serve, a validation of that initial research, particularly upon assuming the position, will inform your ability to drive and execute agendas for the administration. A related step is to identify and establish relationships with those in your agency that have held key responsibilities for carrying out its mission. The support of your “go to” people will enable the responsiveness required to establish your reputation as a reliable member of the administration’s policy setting team.
Political appointees, particularly those in leadership positions, need to remember they are part of a select team - the President’s team. Their success will be closely associated with that of the Administration in which they serve. Being “in the know” on the basics will serve as a foundation on which the political appointee can develop a position of influence in driving, as well as executing, the Administration’s agenda.
Linda M. Springer is an Executive Director in the Government and Public Sector Practice of Ernst & Young. Prior to joining Ernst & Young in 2008, she was Director of the Office of Personnel Management. She previously served as the Controller at the Office of Management and Budget and head of the Office of Federal Financial Management.