Skip to main content

Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

Rocky Mountain Credit Union

What Every New Political Appointee Should Know

January 05, 2016


Over the next several months, the Obama Administration will put together their second term team, with many positions to be filled by new appointees. At the recent annual meeting of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), we had the unique opportunity to bring together a group of NAPA fellows to discuss – based on their prior experience in government -- what advice they would give to new appointees after their nomination. Our discussion focused on two key time periods: prior to confirmation and during their “early days” after confirmation.

What To Do Prior to Confirmation

Talk to predecessors. There was full agreement that a key step for all new political appointees was to talk to their predecessors, regardless of party. While it will be easy to find and meet with predecessors from the Obama Administration, NAPA fellows recommended that new appointees also reach back to appointees in the George W. Bush administration (as well as in the Clinton administration) to get their predecessors perspective on management issues facing the agency, as well as the history of the organization.

Reach out to appropriate networks. In most cases, a political appointee will be part of the network surrounding the organization to which they have been appointed. In this case, it is easy for the new political appointee to reach out to the network to seek their advice and counsel on the challenges they face in their new position. For new appointees who come from “outside” the network, it is even more critical that they quickly meet and get to know the network in which they will be working after their confirmation.

NAPA fellows cautioned, however, that new appointees have to be careful during this time period. Prior to confirmation, appointees are not allowed to use government space (unless they have a temporary appointment). In our interview with David Stevens, former Assistant Secretary for Housing in HUD, he confirmed the importance of reaching out. Stevens did his homework for the new position on weekends while still working at his prior position. “I would spend weekends with binders to learn more about the Department. I would also make phone calls on weekends to talk with people about the position. These phone calls were very helpful to me. You need to use your pre-confirmation time wisely. You should talk to previous incumbents and find out about their experience. I used the time to become as knowledgeable on issues as possible and find as many resources—both people and written materials—as I could.”

Learn about the “management” side of government. While a new appointee may tend to focus on the “policy” side of his or her new position, NAPA fellows strongly recommended that new appointees learn as much as they can about the management side of government – including personnel, procurement, budget, and ethic rules. NAPA fellows argued that this was a crucial part of a new political appointee’s “due diligence” in preparing for a government position. It was pointed out that in the past, political appointees have often gotten into “trouble” because they did not fully understand and follow the rules and regulations governing public service. There are many organizations ready and eager to assist new political appointees in learning the basics of government service. Political appointees were encouraged to reach out to these organizations, which include the National Academy of Public Administration, the Partnership for Public Service, and the Senior Executive Association. After confirmation, new appointees should quickly seek out ethics training provided by their organization.

What To Do after Confirmation

Our discussion with NAPA fellows also focused on what political appointees should do in their early days in office. There was strong agreement that first impressions were important and lasting in many cases.

Meet with career staff. While it may seem obvious, some political appointees feel more comfortable spending their first days in the company of fellow political appointees and immediate staff. NAPA fellows emphasized the importance of quickly meeting with their career staff to introduce themselves and to begin to get know each other. These early meetings are a good opportunity for a new appointee to collect information on the major issues facing the organization and to ask questions of their career staff. New political appointees, however, were cautioned by NAPA fellows not mention “reorganization” in their early meetings and not to promise too much. These early sessions should be viewed as “learning” and “get acquainted” sessions.

When ready, communicate priorities. At some point, new political appointees need to begin to layout their priorities and vision for the organization. One suggested approach is to present priorities and ask careerists how they would approach these priorities. As part of communicating priorities and vision, it is also important to clarify and communicate expectations for both individual and organizational performance.

Communicate management style. One of the most surprising and interesting advice from NAPA fellows was the importance of new political appointees communicating their management style to their staff. How do they want to operate? How do they want to receive information – reports, briefings, or a mix? Usually, staff has to work hard to figure out a new appointee’s style and preferences. It would increase the productivity and effectiveness of an office if the leader articulated their style and how they wished to work with their colleagues.

Final Thought

During our wide-ranging discussion, NAPA fellows also pointed out the importance of understanding the “life cycle” of an administration. Entering an administration in the second term is different than entering government at the start of an administration. A second term administration is not starting from scratch and there are now many activities and projects in mid-stream or nearing completion. A new appointee in the second term must spend time determining “where the agency is” and not presuming that change is automatically needed (as is often the mind set at the start an administration). While different, participating in a second term can be equally rewarding as participating in a first term.

*David Hollis of Ernst & Young provided valuable assistance in the preparation of this Commentary*

Mark A. Abramson is President, Leadership Inc.; Paul Lawrence is a Principal at Ernst & Young's Government & Public Sector practice. He is co-author (with Mark Abramson) of What Government Does: How Political Executives Manage and Paths to Making a Difference: Leading in Government.