By Joseph Gurney, Paul R. Lawrence, and Mark Abramson
We are now nearing Inauguration Day and the arrival of the next generation of political appointees to implement the agenda of the new Administration. This changing of the guard happens every four years. Over the last seven years, we have examined the experience of new appointees and concluded that better preparation is needed for them to succeed. We discussed this finding in a 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).
Based on our interviews, we found that the information needs of political appointees are great. Their information needs can be clustered into the following categories:
- The Basics: How do I become an employee of the federal government?
- The Essentials: What are the rules of government that I need to know?
- The Job: What do I need to know about my job?
- Becoming Effective: How do I succeed in my job?
The Basics: How do I become an employee of the federal government?
While appointees need to be briefed about getting on the payroll and signing up for health insurance and other benefits on day one, there is much additional 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. Others sought, but did not receive, information and support on housing.
The Essentials: What are the rules of government that I need to know?
After the basics, the next set of information needs 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 clearly rule-driven and there are clear procedures to be followed in undertaking the business of government. Thus, any onboarding initiative will need to determine the best way to deliver information on the following:
- Ethics rules
- Procurement rules
- Personnel rules
- Travel rules
Briefings on the essentials can be provided during the period between nomination and confirmation, which we have argued is not used effectively. If the above information on the rules is not provided prior to confirmation, it should receive high priority and be delivered within the first month of an appointee’s tenure. Information about the rules is best provided directly by the department or agency in which the new appointee is located because many of the rules are department or agency specific.
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 priority objectives. The goal of onboarding is to avoid the “nobody told me” response new appointees often give after they may have inadvertently taken an inappropriate action.
The need for a deep understanding of the essentials is very well summed up by a former political executive:
(New appointees) have to understand what Washington is like, they have got to understand what a bureaucracy is like. They have got to understand that they come to Washington to do great things… but while you are doing great things, you have to understand about personnel; you have to understand about the budget process; you have got to understand about all these things that drive your train while you are cogitating about how to save the world…
A final point about the need for understanding the essentials is the difference between the public and private sector. Many business executives often have a difficult time in transitioning to the public sector where they no longer control the hiring and firing of individuals, as well as the ability to manage their organization’s budget by shifting funds when needed. The failure to fully understand these differences can often cause major problems for a new appointee and dramatically decrease their chances for succeeding in government.
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 a schedule must be developed for the transmittal of this information. This set of crucial information can be summed up by “how does this building operate?” This component of onboarding should include the following:
- Understanding the department and the federal government.
- Understanding the tools of the job.
- Understanding goal setting and strategic challenges.
- Understanding the major issues facing a new appointee.
- Understanding Congress.
Becoming Effective: How do I succeed in my job?
While much of the information needs discussed in this article 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. For a new appointee running an agency, it would be helpful for the onboarding unit to schedule a meeting with individuals who have previously served as agency heads in prior administrations.
The challenge of transmitting advice for becoming effective is that it is not fact-driven or based on a set of existing rules. Becoming effective is much more behavioral and attitude driven.
As discussed in our recent article describing the Ambassadorial Seminar at the Department of State, we noted that the “craft of diplomacy” is conveyed by present and former Ambassadors (http://www.govexec.com/excellence/promising-practices/2016/12/what-state-department-can-teach-agencies-about-preparing-new-appointees-job/133889/?oref=channelriver). It is important to note that the Department of State’s Ambassadorial Seminar is taught, in part, by former Ambassadors who also serve as “Course Mentors” for the entire three-week seminar. There is a tradition in the department of former Ambassadors serving as ongoing resources and mentors to new Ambassadors.
The arrival of new appointees is imminent. It is now incumbent on the new administration to put in place onboarding programs which will provide them with the essential knowledge they need to succeed in government.