By Joseph Gurney, Paul R. Lawrence, and Mark A. Abramson

Change is the new keyword of 2016. A new administration was elected in November on the promise of bringing change to Washington. To make this happen, they need to carefully evaluate how Washington is currently doing business and what they should do differently. 

An immediate first step would be to reevaluate how government has traditionally undertaken the onboarding of its new political appointees. We define strategic onboarding as "the systemic and designed approach over the first year of an appointee's tenure that will prepare him or her for success. The goal of strategic onboarding is to have new appointees become productive in a short amount of time."

Historically, the federal government's approach to onboarding can be characterized by:

      * A centralized one-day White House Orientation program conducted during the second half of the first year of an administration;
      * Few, if any, onboarding services provided at the departmental level; and
      * A de facto "sink or swim" approach to new political appointees.

We believe the current approach should change and the result will be more effective political appointees. In a recently-released report, The Onboarding of New Political Appointees (Link: by Lilith Christiansen, Paul Lawrence, Mark Stein, and Mark Abramson, a new approach is set forth. In contrast to the traditional approach, this new approach is characterized by:

      * A decentralized approach in which each cabinet department assumes responsibility for the onboarding of its new political appointees;
      * An increased number of activities undertaken between the time of nomination and confirmation of the new appointee;
      * A variety of mechanisms to deliver onboarding, including briefings, small group seminars, training sessions, face-to-face meetings, site visits, and social events.

Why Is a New Approach is Needed?

Based on interviews conducted with previous political appointees, we found that nearly all those interviewed felt that they did not receive the onboarding support they needed. One appointee told us, "I have had two presidential appointments and I did not receive any formal or informal orientations in either position." The experience of this appointee is common and significantly different from what goes on in the private sector where onboarding services are provided to all new employees.

A new approach is needed by the incoming administration for several reasons. First, many new appointees are likely to come from the private sector, with many having no previous government experience. These individuals will need to receive key information about the differences between the public and private sectors as soon as possible. Second, since many will be coming from the private sector they will have an expectation that their new organization will provide the same quality of onboarding services that they received in their previous private sector position as noted above.

What Do New Appointees Need to Know?

Based on our interviews, we have concluded an effective onboarding program must communicate needed information in the following categories.

      The Basics: How do I become an employee of the federal government? There are a host of basic activities that need to be done during the first week. Although appointees will clearly need to be briefed about getting on the payroll and signing up for health insurance and other benefits, there is much other work to be done during week one. Several appointees noted that they had not received any advance information on the basic question of "Where do I park?" Other appointees commented on the difficulty of getting around in a new building. Another aspect of the "basics" is to provide a new appointee with assistance in finding housing, both temporary and permanent. Regarding temporary housing, little assistance is provided to new appointees who are coming from out of town on short notice.

      The Essentials: What are the rules of government that I need to know? After the basics, the next set of information centers around the "rules" of government. These rules are important because mistakes in following them frequently can get a new (or even an experienced) appointee in trouble. Government is rule-driven and there are clear procedures to be followed in undertaking the business of government. Thus, the proposed onboarding office needs to determine the best way to deliver information on the following: ethics rules, procurement rules, personnel rules, and travel rules.
The essentials are not just "good to know" bits of information. The lack of understanding of these rules can get a new appointee in serious trouble and prevent him or her from accomplishing their priority objectives. The goal of the proposed onboarding unit is to avoid the "nobody told me" response by new appointees after they have inadvertently violated a rule. Such rule violations range from accepting a gift larger than allowed by federal ethics rules to telling friends about a future procurement to spending more than allowed on travel.

      The Job: What do I need to know about my job? After a new appointee has been adequately prepared on the basics and the essentials, the greatest amount of information needed by a new appointee is about the job itself. Providing this set of information will take time and an individual onboarding schedule is needed for each new appointee. This set of information can be summed up by "how does this building operate?" This component of onboarding includes the following: understanding the department and the federal government; understanding the tools of the job; understanding goal setting and strategic challenges; understanding the major policy issues facing the new appointee; and understanding Congress.

      Becoming Effective: How do I succeed in my job? While much of the information needed by a political appointee can be transmitted primarily by briefings, group meetings, and orientation sessions, the transmittal of advice on becoming effective is more of a challenge. We have found that the most effective way to transmit this set of knowledge is through seminars or meetings with former political appointees who have "been there." These individuals are very willing to share their experiences with new appointees. Former appointees can discuss what worked for them and what did not work.

Next Steps

The new Administration must quickly begin preparing for new political appointees who will start arriving in January 2017 and continue to arrive throughout the remainder of 2017. The new administration must prepare now to onboard new appointees as soon as their nominations are announced. The time to start preparing for onboarding is now.

Joseph Gurney is Leader, Public Sector Practice and Senior Vice President, Kaiser Associates, Inc. His e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Paul R. Lawrence is Vice President, Kaiser Associates, Inc. His email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Mark A. Abramson is President, Leadership Inc. His email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..