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Most political appointees come to Washington to serve in a programmatic role.  They probably already are familiar with the policy orientations of key interest groups involved in that programmatic area. However, there are four key governmental constituencies that a new Senate-confirmed political appointee is well advised to cultivate if he or she is to be successful inside the Beltway.   These key constituencies include:

  • Your agency head
  • Your Office of Management and Budget (OMB) budget examiner
  • Key congressional staff
  • Your career Senior Executive Service (SES) staff

Your agency head. First, and most obvious, is your agency head. While you are a key player on the President’s team, you don’t own the store. Do not assume that your priorities are necessarily those of your agency head. You are likely to be given considerable leeway to manage your program as you consider appropriate. However, be certain that you are carefully attending to any of your agency head’s priorities that happen to fall within your scope of responsibilities. Make sure that you closely consult with your agency head on all such matters on an ongoing basis.

Your OMB budget examiner. Become a close friend of your Office of Management and Budget Program Examiner. This career civil servant will have an enormous amount of influence over your quality of life in Washington. Every time you testify before Congress, they review and most likely edit your testimony.  Every time a political appointee from another agency testifies on a topic that is primarily within your sphere of responsibility, your OMB examiner will also be reviewing and editing that person’s testimony as well. If your program promulgates regulations, then your OMB examiner will generally be discussing those regulations with your senior staff, and suggesting changes. If you are working on policy that impacts similar programs of other agencies, your OMB examiner will referee any interagency discord. Finally, your OMB examiner will have more practical influence than any other single human being over how your program is treated in the President’s Budget that is submitted to Congress. You want this person to know you, like you, understand why your policy positions and priorities are correct, and support you in your efforts.

Key congressional staff. Get to know the staff and key members of your House and Senate authorizing committees and appropriations subcommittees. The authorizers control the breadth of your authority, and the appropriators give you money. You need to effectively manage both sets of relationships. Use your agency’s Congressional Affairs Office to facilitate the relationship with your authorizers. In most agencies, the agency Budget Office jealously guards all interactions with the appropriators, so you may have to do some cajoling to have them introduce you to the appropriators. While Presidents and political appointees come and go, Congress is forever. Indeed, it is not unusual to find senior members of Congress who have served for 20 or more years. You want to have relationships with that permanent government that are just as strong if not stronger than the informal relationships your career civil servants have with Congressional staffers.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that Senators and Congressmen of the President’s party will automatically support your positions. The truth is they are far more interested in what their constituents think than what the President thinks. While the chairmen and subcommittee chairmen of your authorizing and appropriations panels are the most important people on the Hill for you to influence, don’t ignore or unnecessarily antagonize the ranking minority members of those panels.  After the next election, party control of the House or Senate may switch, in which case today’s ranking minority member will suddenly become the chairman. To the extent you can be in the good graces of both the ranking minority member as well as the chairman, you will be better off. Similarly, in some panels the role of chairman or ranking minority member is term-limited, so they regularly rotate out of the role. You therefore should cultivate relationships with the top two or three members of each party on each panel, so you are not left out in the cold when roles switch.

Career SES members. Get as close as you can, as fast as you can, to the career members of the Senior Executive Service who report to you. Most of them have been civil servants for many years. They are masters of the nuances of making the bureaucratic machinery hum. They have seen political appointees fail, often by ignoring their advice. They have helped appointees achieve goals by carefully guiding them through the bureaucratic labyrinth. While avoiding partisan politics, do take your SESers into your confidence. Your job is to establish the policy the agency will pursue, but you will find the career SES can best figure out how to make things happen. If you are clear and open about your goals, you will find the career SES will be an invaluable resource in helping you succeed.

By paying close attention and developing effective working relationships with the above four key constituencies, your tenure is much more likely to be successful.

Scott Cameron
Scott Cameron
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Scott Cameron is Senior Vice President and Partner, R3 Government Solutions. He formerly served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Performance, Accountability and Human Resources in the Department of the Interior.