Based on my experience as a Presidential appointee in the Carter Administration, I suggest the following rules for all new political executives:
Rule One: Respect the career staff. They know more than you do about the agency and its programs. Most of them are intelligent and dedicated to public service. They can help you, or hurt you. By respecting them, and letting them know you appreciate their service, they are much more likely to help you. Respecting them doesn’t require you to be completely dependent on them. They expect, and your boss expects, you to make recommendations and decisions based on your best judgment.
Rule Two: Stay in close touch with your boss. You should have a good understanding at the beginning about how much communication/information your boss wants. You should also seek out information about the “rules” for the organization. For example, find out the guidelines for your travel (many appointees have gotten into trouble for violating travel rules). Also, determine whether you have the authority to make personnel changes in your agency, and which ones, including political appointees who might report to you.
In my case, I reported directly to the Secretary of Transportation; there was literally a red phone on my desk that rang on his desk – and vice versa. I had several direct reports: the deputy administrator, and several associate administrators for policy, administration, program, R&D. The deputy and the associate administrator for policy were political appointees.
Rule Three: Clarify your priorities at the beginning and get approval from your boss. You have much less time than you think you do, so act quickly. You may think you signed up for four years, but Cabinet members rarely stay that long, and sub-cabinet officials change every couple of years. The average tenure in my position in the Department of Transportation was 22 months. I scoffed because my intention was to serve for the full four years [or the full 42 months remaining, after I was confirmed by the Senate]. I left after 22 months with my boss’ blessing. He left two months later.
Rule Four: Establish a relationship with a few Members of Congress. Don’t leave “congressional relations” up to the congressional relations staff. When you do meet and start working with a Member, know that your connection and relationship is with the Member, not just with the staff. One political appointee I recall said to a Member, after being introduced, “I look forward to working with your staff.” The Member frowned slightly, and the appointee ended up working only with the staff.
Rule Five: Know your OMB examiner(s), and have one or more senior-level contacts/connections in the White House. The OMB examiner can help or hurt you. The examiner’s knowledge of your agency or program, and of how the budget goes together can be very informative for you. The examiner is not an adversary, just as Members of Congress and their staff are never adversaries, but someone to work with to get the best you can for your agency or program. My boss, the Secretary, had lots of contacts in the White House, including, of course, his boss the President. In my case, I was able to meet and talk with a senior member of the Domestic Council staff. He was very helpful to me on the occasions we talked.
Rule Six: You earn respect by working and delivering, not by socializing. Obviously, your new position will have some perks, and you should enjoy them. Serving in government is not all work and no play. But aim to be a workhorse, not a show-horse.
Rule Seven: Don’t try to calculate or maneuver for your next position. If you do an excellent job in your position, you will be noticed and offered more opportunities. In my experience, too many men and women come to Washington and fail to take their current responsibilities seriously. They are too busy networking, gossiping, and figuring out how they can advance; or work for a better boss; or get more money; or position themselves for their career after they leave the government. My advice is, don’t do it. Pay attention to the job you have accepted, and do the very best job you can. Other opportunities, including opportunities after government service, will come.
Reflections on Public Service
It is a great honor to serve in the federal government, especially at a political level. I jumped at the chance, and moved my family 3,000 miles from Seattle to Washington for the opportunity. I learned a great deal, and met and worked with hundreds of talented people, in the government and outside. I consider those 22 months a true highlight in my life. Public service is a privilege. I enjoyed my service, and hope you will too.