During my 12 years of service as a Senate-confirmed political appointee in the Department of Defense (DoD), I regularly dealt with what I called my “operating/investment dilemma.” How well you deal with your version of this dilemma may well determine the improvements in government that you will leave behind after your service.
Day-to-day Operating Issues
Once in office, you will regularly be confronted with day-to-day operating issues. For me, during my most recent service as Comptroller and Chief Financial Officer at the Defense Department, these issues often revolved around budgets and getting the resources needed by a military at war. The budgetary chaos of recent years, including sequestration and shutdown, added to the volume and urgency of the issues. With these issues came endless internal meetings, many with the Secretary or Deputy Secretary, and a steady stream of memos, speeches, Congressional testimony and briefings, and more.
These budget issues were an important part of my job, and I tried to approach them with enthusiasm and commitment. But I also realized that budget issues would continue after I left my job. Indeed, since I left the DoD Comptroller position in June 2014, my successor has confronted them regularly.
Investing in the institution
In addition to handling these day-to-day operating issues successfully, I wanted to leave behind some changes that improved the Department of Defense. In other words, I wanted to make an investment that paid lasting dividends. For me in the DoD Comptroller job, that meant focusing on time-phased changes in financial management that would lead to auditable financial statements and installing a course-based certification program to improve training among the 60,000 employees who perform financial management for the Defense Department.
But the day-to-day operating issues have an insidious habit of eating up all of one’s time, even when you are working long hours and weekends. Hence the dilemma: how do you balance time spent on operating issues, which must be resolved, while also making investments that can leave your agency better off in the long run. I offer the following steps to handling this dilemma, approaches that may seem obvious but are easy to overlook – especially during the whirlwind of activities associated with your first few month in office.
Step One: Identify investment initiatives early. Within a few months after taking office, try to have a short list (three or so) of significant initiatives that have the potential to make lasting improvements in your agency. Hopefully, you have arrived at your new job with thoughts about such initiatives. Your Secretary and other senior agency appointees may provide guidance. I would also strongly suggest that you discuss your initiatives informally with your senior career staff before formalizing them. This is your agenda, but their support will help a lot.
Step Two: Devise a game plan consistent with your expected tenure. You need a plan of action to accomplish your investment initiatives. That plans needs to take into account the time you expect to be in your office, which may be only a few years for many political appointees. So the game plan probably needs to focus on achieving early successes that can help institutionalize your investment initiative and give it a chance to survive after your departure. Again, I would strongly urge working with your senior career staff. In my experience at DoD, most of these senior civilians were more than happy to help me devise a game plan to bring about change, and they can help keep your initiatives alive after you leave.
Step Three: Publicize your initiatives. I had several all-hands meeting with my staff each year and, especially early in my tenure, I always spent time discussing my overall plan of work including my investment initiatives – though I didn’t usually highlight them as “investments” for fear of denigrating other work. I tried to keep my Secretary and other senior leaders informed and, where I could, I got them involved in support of my efforts. I did the same where appropriate in briefings to Congressional staff and speeches to outside groups. I wanted everyone to know my objectives.
Step Four: Be sure to devote some of your time to your investment plan. Most significant changes will not occur unless you, as a senior leader, spend time bringing about the change. Be sure that you regularly set aside time to pursue these investment initiatives. I tried to ask myself each week (often on the way home on Friday) whether I had spent some reasonable amount of time on my investment initiatives. Sometimes this caused me to revise my schedule for the next work week, or for that weekend.
Step Five: Be flexible about changes. External events, or knowledge gained as you pursue your investment initiatives, may require changes in your plan. Be flexible.
It remains to be seen whether my investment initiatives on audit and training will be fully implemented at DoD. But on the day I left my Comptroller/CFO job, I knew that I had at least gotten the Defense Department started toward implementing two initiatives with the potential to create lasting change. That success occurred, in part, because I paid attention to the operating/investment dilemma that confronts most political appointees.