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

In our recent article, "Needed: A New Approach for Onboarding Political Appointees," (http://www.govexec.com/excellence/promising-practices/2016/12/needed-new-approach-onboarding-political-appointees/133589/?oref=river), we called for the new administration to revisit how political appointees are prepared for their new positions. We set forth a new approach which would be characterized by decentralized onboarding with each cabinet department assuming responsibility for onboarding their new appointees, an increased number of activities undertaken between the time of nomination and confirmation, and an increase in the number of mechanisms to deliver onboarding.

Our vision of the future, however, for government onboarding is grounded in the present. The Department of State has long been a leader in providing a variety of onboarding activities to their new ambassadors. Their Ambassadorial Seminar is a model for other departments to follow. The key characteristics of the Ambassadorial Seminar include:

  • Mandatory participation.
  • One entity within the Department (the Foreign Service Institute) has clear responsibility for undertaking the onboarding of new appointees.
  • The Department effectively uses the period between nomination and confirmation for onboarding its new Ambassador nominees.
  • The Department does not rely on a single orientation event to prepare its political appointees, but instead provides a range of support which we call onboarding.

Based on our research, we found that the Department of State devoted significant resources and attention to onboarding. The goal of State's onboarding program, through both its formal and informal activities, is to set up new Ambassadors for success. Preparing new Ambassadors does not start on the day they walk into their new office, but rather many months prior to their swearing in and assumption of duties.

Since we believe that the Ambassadorial Seminar is a model for other departments, the remainder of this article focuses on the activities of the three-week required course.  The seminar is provided by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) for all incoming Ambassadors. It is facilitated through the FSI Leadership and Management School and led by former Ambassadors who serve as course mentors, along with FSI trainers. The seminar consists of a two-day preparation session for non-career candidates and three weeks of onboarding activities for both career and non-career Ambassadorial nominees.   For a more detailed discussion of the Department of State's onboarding activities, see the recently-released report, The Onboarding of New Political Appointees (http://info.kaiserassociates.com/hubfs/PS_Practice/The-Onboarding-of-New-Political-Appointees.pdf) by Lilith Christiansen, Paul Lawrence, Mark Stein, and Mark Abramson.

Two-day preparation session. Prior to the three-week Ambassadorial Seminar, non-career candidates are encouraged to attend a two-day Non-Career Ambassadorial Seminar that is designed specifically for non-career nominees. The intent of this two-day seminar is to provide nominated appointees with information on the operations of the State Department generally, and a U.S. Embassy specifically. This information helps them start the three-week Ambassadorial Seminar on a more level playing field with their career Foreign Service counterparts. Many candidates are new to the federal government, so this two-day workshop helps address many of the basic questions they might bring as outsiders. Candidates are encouraged to bring a list of questions, concerns, and knowledge gaps that they would like addressed both during the two-day seminar and the three-week Ambassadorial Seminar. 

Week One. The first week of the course is held at an out-of-town offsite location and facilitated by course mentors, FSI staff, and external contractors. Being out-of-town provides the opportunity to step away from the distractions of an office and learn both formally and informally. The content focus is on leadership, with the goal to provide an opportunity for reflection on leadership skills, styles, and expected challenges.  The offsite also provides the chance to build relationships among seminar participants that can be used to provide support to one another once they are in the field. Learning happens both in a formal classroom setting and informally over conversations at and after dinner. 

Week Two. The second week of the seminar takes place in downtown Washington, DC, at department headquarters. The second week focuses substantively on policy and the specific roles, responsibilities, and authorities of the Ambassador. The schedule is filled with guest speakers who hold some of the highest-level jobs within the Department of State, including the Secretary of State if his or her schedule permits. Participants will get briefings from and will have the opportunity to ask questions of selected principals with essential expertise and experience, and who support the learning objectives of the seminar. The week is also interspersed with a variety of short presentations from guest speakers on topics the departmental leadership team believes will be of interest to Ambassadorial candidates. External speakers from the United States military and law enforcement community are often included to highlight the interagency culture at the post and how they engage with the Ambassador. For many of the substantive topics presented during week two, participants may schedule a follow-up one-on-one consultation with the principal to get country-specific information. This consultative process can take place either before or after the Ambassadorial Seminar.

Week Three. The third week of the seminar focuses on preparing the candidate for success during the first 90 days. Participants prepare an entry strategy and plan for their first week and month, and they outline goals they want to accomplish during the first 90 days. Experienced public affairs trainers provide two days of public speaking and public affairs instruction. Additional speakers discuss pitfalls to avoid and the importance of security.

Next Steps

Departments should carefully examine the Department of State Ambassadorial Seminar as a model from which they can build their own onboarding initiatives to fit the needs of their political appointees. A key element to replicate from the Department of State experience is that onboarding activities should be provided in the period between nomination and confirmation.

As demonstrated by the Department of State (and the private sector), carefully developed and executed onboarding increases the likelihood of political appointees being successful.

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 at Kaiser Associates. 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.