By Joseph Gurney, Paul R. Lawrence, and Mark A. Abramson
The first round of the Trump Administration cabinet nominations is now nearly complete. In the weeks ahead, subcabinet positions will be announced.
A nominee faces a difficult period between nomination and confirmation. In many ways, it is "no man's land" and nominees must proceed carefully. There is, however, much that can be done between nomination and confirmation. The effective and proactive use of this period will be crucial to the success of a new appointee in preparing for the responsibilities of his or her new position.
Based on interviews with previous political appointees, this article sets forth lessons learned for previous nominees who went through the "awaiting confirmation" experience.
Lesson One: Be Prepared to Wait
Be warned!!! This can be a lengthy process. While the confirmation of cabinet secretaries and other high-level positions might proceed quickly, the confirmation of the subcabinet is likely to proceed very slowly throughout 2017. Based on interviews with previous appointees, wait times ranged from eight to 358 days, with three months being the average. During the Obama Administration, the average length of time between nomination and confirmation from 2009 to 2014 was 127 days. If a nominee is lucky (or if there is a crisis in an agency needing the urgent attention of a new appointee), confirmation might be expedited. More likely, however, it will be a frustrating, slow wait.
Erica Groshen, Commissioner, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor, had a long wait for her appointment. At the time of her nomination, she was a vice president in the Research and Statistics Group at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. After her nomination in mid-February 2012, Groshen recalls, "I started spending my time finishing up my work at the Federal Reserve. In July 2012, I was told that my nomination would be held up until after the presidential election in November...I was prepared for the possibility of a delay...I focused on getting my work and home in order." Groshen was confirmed in January 2013, nearly 11 months after her nomination.
There were similar experiences during the Obama administration. Gayle E. Smith, a former national security aide, was nominated in April 2015 to serve as administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. The previous administrator had left the position in February 2015. A Senate committee approved her by a voice vote on July 29 with no objections. The full Senate vote was held up by one senator. On November 30, a vote was finally held on the Senate floor. Ms. Smith was confirmed 79-7, seven months after her nomination.
Unlike Groshen and Smith, Terry Garcia's experience did not end as well. In May 2011, Garcia was nominated to be deputy secretary of Commerce. When nominated, Garcia was an executive vice president at the National Geographic Society. His nomination, along with several other Department of Commerce nominations, was held up by the Senate. In October 2011, Garcia was reported to have become frustrated with the continued delay and asked that his nomination be withdrawn. An Administration official told Reuters, "He has been held up for no specific objection to him, his qualifications, or background. We've had this happen with a lot of our nominees, where there's an objection raised that has nothing to do with their qualifications."
Lesson Two: Spend Time Talking to Predecessors and Experts
While the conventional wisdom is that nominees must keep a low profile between nomination and confirmation, this does not mean that nominees cannot seek out advice and talk to many individuals during this period. Since the wait is likely to be long as discussed in lesson one, the time between nomination and confirmation needs to be put to good use.
David Stevens, former Assistant Secretary for Housing, and Commissioner, Federal Housing Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development, 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...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."
Nearly all of those interviewed spent time talking with their predecessors of both parties. Many strongly advised seeking out predecessors from all previous administrations, regardless of party affiliation. Leon Rodriguez, Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security, recalls, "Regarding predecessors, I talked to Ali Mayorkas (my immediate predecessor) and two Bush (Republican) Administration appointees to this job...I found my conversations with the Bush Administration appointees helpful."
In addition to talking to predecessors, nominees should also to seek out experts in their professional community to get their input into their new position and agency.
Lesson Three: Spend Time Seeking Out Information
Today, it is much easier for a nominee to obtain information about his or her new agency than in the "old days." While nominees ultimately receive briefing books in advance of their confirmation hearings, they will be on their own in the immediate days after nomination.
"I have been confirmed twice for presidential appointments," recalls Kathryn Sullivan, Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "The confirmation process was similar in both instances, but my pre-confirmation preparations were very different. Prior to my first appointment, I was assigned to the Office of the Administrator where I undertook several projects which served as a great introduction to NOAA programs and issues."
"The second time (2010)," says Sullivan, "I relied on the Internet for my preparatory research. The variety and volume of materials available online-budgets, program evaluations, independent review reports, and more-allowed me to become quite familiar with NOAA's current operations and challenges." If a nominee undertakes his or her prior research, they will need less time to get up to speed during their initial time on the job and can spend more time executing their agenda after confirmation.
Lesson Four: Participate in Onboarding Services if Available
As discussed in a recent article, "Developing a New Approach for Onboarding Political Appointees: A Case Study of the Department of State" (http://politicalappointeeproject.org/commentaries/improving-the-appointment-process/196-developing-a-new-approach-for-onboarding-political-appointees-a-case-study-of-the-department-of-state.html), we highlighted the best practice of the Department of State in providing a three-week Ambassadorial Seminar for individuals who have been nominated to serve as ambassadors across the world. Participation is mandatory.
While few departments are likely to undertake three-week seminars, we believe that all departments should be assigned responsibility for onboarding their new appointees and providing learning opportunities to them. These activities should be undertaken between confirmation and nomination for maximum impact.
After confirmation, new appointees are "off to the races." There will be many demands on their time which will leave little time for continued preparation for their new position, other than "on the job" training. It is imperative that the crucial period between nomination and confirmation be used wisely and effectively.