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Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

To the Incoming Sub-Cabinet: You’ve Been Nominated, Confirmed, and Sworn in—But You Are New to Washington, Now What?

January 02, 2016


Congratulations! You have received a presidential appointment and have been confirmed by the United States Senate. While you may be an expert in a given field of public policy, that’s not enough. In addition to your substantive knowledge, you need to know:

  • What is the President’s policy in your areas of responsibility?
  • Is it a change from what it has been in the past?
  • How will you find that out?

The President has confidence in you, but how often will you meet with him to discuss policy? Rarely. Your predecessor may be around and may be helpful. But maybe not; he or she may have gone back to their home state.


The White House staff may be a bridge for you to the President, but staff members’ calendars are as full as their egos are high; what they will pass on to you is less frequently recommendations to be discussed, and more frequently, instructions to be followed. If you want to hire a Schedule C assistant to be your aide, the practice of the White House Personnel Office is that they may choose him or her for you (and they retain the right to fire him or her if they wish).

If the Press Secretary in your department reads a highly-critical story in the Washington Post about the policy your department is following—or sees a derogatory New York Times editorial about that policy and badly wants to issue a response statement, he or she had better wait until they talk to the White House Communications Office or to the White House Press Secretary before responding (if they don’t call her first).

If a Congressman demands that your boss, the Secretary, come up as a witness at a policy hearing, are you aware that the testimony you are drafting must be approved—in advance—by the Office of Management and Budget? If a Congressman writes a letter on a policy question, are you aware that the text of the response letter you are drafting for the Secretary to sign must meet the OK of that same OMB office? If the policy question in either case involves dollars, a second OMB office must concur before you or your Secretary can make any pro or con decision about it. If the Secretary, in his or her best judgment, plans to issue a formal regulation to implement a provision in the Secretary’s favorite statute, a third office of our same OMB must know of your Secretary’s intent months in advance and must approve every word of its text before he issues it.

If the regulation at hand raises the question of the Constitutional powers of the President, your General Counsel needs to get the advice of the White House Counsel, who was probably the one who selected your General Counsel.

Our answer to “Now What?” is this: You are surrounded—a single person (to some extent an important one)—in the huge universe of the Executive Branch, overseen by dozens of others with more authority than you, supervised by hundreds similarly politically responsible like yourself, and supported by still thousands of others professionally equal to you. You, your bosses and your equals, in this same universe, believe that they are—and they are—co-responsible to laws, to rules, and to traditions. None of them are hesitant to rely on those laws, rules and traditions to watch, and to judge, what you are doing pursuant to those same beliefs. Some of their judgments will be complementary; some will thoroughly differ from you; this universe is a scrappy one. The “Now What?” is that you must find out more about that universe and about how you fit into it. By fully understanding this universe, your contribution can be a positive one.

It is the author’s view that those in the White House Personnel Office who brought you into that universe have a responsibility to help you make that fit. They should go beyond the stage called “Transition” (greatly improved in recent years), to a follow-up stage called: ORIENTATION.

Below is the agenda of the day-and-a-half orientation sessions that, on three occasions, President Ford’s White House Personnel Office set up as a requirement for new-to-Washington appointees at the sub-Cabinet level.[1] Although it was not on the written agenda, President Ford joined the group at the close of the final session, which had an enormous morale effect.

While Presidents since Gerald Ford have held similar political orientation sessions, it is crucial that these sessions be continued. Based on my experience, I strongly encourage the Obama Administration to actively engage in convening political orientation sessions throughout their second term, especially in the first and second years of the second term.

What a Political Orientation Session Looks Like

Day One

9:00am – 9:30am: Opening Remarks

9:30am – 10:30am: The Role of the White House Staff and How it Works with The Cabinet

10:30am – 10:45am: Break

10:45am – 11:30am: The Work of the Domestic Council

11:30am – 12:45pm: Presidential Staff Work through OMB

12:45pm – 2:00pm: Lunch in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden

2:00pm – 3:30pm: The Federal Personnel System

3:30pm – 3:45pm: Break

3:45pm – 5:00pm: Managing a Department

5:00pm – 6:00pm: Intergovernmental Relations

Day Two

9:00am – 10:00am: The Dovetailing of Economic Policy and how Departments Fit into the Process

10:00am – 10:45am: How Congressional Leadership Looks at the Policy Executive

10:45am – 11:00am: Break

11:00am – 11:45am: Working With Congress

11:45am – 12:45pm: Principal Legal Problems & Issues

12:45pm – 2:00pm: Lunch in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden

2:00pm – 2:45pm: Dealing with the Press

[1] The author of this piece, Bradley Patterson, was the moderator at these orientations which were held in the White House theater.

Bradley Patterson is an Academy Fellow and has lived and worked for fourteen years with the White House staffs of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. He is the author of The White House Staff: Inside the West Wing and Beyond (Brookings, 2000) and The Ring of Power (Basic Books, 1988).