Washington's Other Rivalry: Politicals and Careers

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Public Domain
April 6, 2017

President Trump has questioned the need for the current number of political appointees as well as the size of the civil service. I don’t disagree with his assessment. However, for whatever number of senior positions that exists, there needs to be collaboration between appointees and civil service leaders to attain the administration’s goals. This can be achieved by creating a joint learning environment where both groups learn together how to do their jobs.

A common refrain of new political appointees is, “I can’t get the bureaucracy to work with me.” The response from career civil servants is often, “These people just don’t get it.” Reconciling these positions is essential to achieve mission goals. There needs to be better understanding between “careers” and “politicals” about how to carry out their roles and responsibilities.

I am convinced that both groups need a common framework for undertaking their work. While we may not want to call this “training,” there is a need for both groups to come together to understand the common challenges they face, the results they seek, and the risks that are ahead; and to demonstrate resilience when problems do arise. This can best be done in a learning environment of joint skill development that leads to common goal achievement.

Continually during a president’s term, he or she appoints many senior leaders and managers in federal departments and agencies. The number of presidential appointments available at all levels is approximately 8,000 including boards and commissions. Additionally, there are career leaders and managers in the Senior Executive Service (SES). The number of SES and military officers with the rank of one star or above is almost 9,000. With continuous turnover in both groups, tens of thousands of individuals with senior positions are counted on to make things happen during an administration’s tenure.

A significant challenge is reconciling the interests, objectives, and working styles of each group. Often, the SES believes that they represent continuity in government and are its permanent leadership and management cadre. Presidential appointees represent the policies of the president and see themselves as energizing change agents. Getting the two groups to work together to achieve agency goals is very difficult.

Presidential appointees come in many varieties. Some are policy wonks intent on passing legislation or regulations that will advance a cause, yet may have little experience or interest in managing the organizations they oversee. Others come from the private sector and have a management background but not a government management background. Additional appointees come from the public or non-profit sector and may not be familiar with the procedures and frustrations that come with working in the federal government.

What we know is that the SES and presidential appointees must function together smoothly if the work of the federal government is to proceed in an efficient and effective manner. One way to ensure efficiency and effectiveness is to provide joint learning opportunities in the competencies that both need to do their job. For example, there are five “Executive Core Qualifications” that are used to screen civil servants for the Senior Executive Service : Leading Change, Leading People, Achieving Results, Having Business Acumen, and Building Coalitions.

These may not be a perfect set of competencies. The new administration can create a set that works for them and set up a program of continual learning for both political appointees and senior career civil servants.

S.1172, the Edward "Ted" Kaufman and Michael Leavitt Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015, established a fund of $1,000,000 to subsidize training for the new administration. The Trump White House rejected a General Services Administration (GSA) proposal for how this money would be spent. I believe they acted correctly. The GSA proposal was front loaded and would have helped a relatively small group of appointees who arrived early in the administration while doing nothing to foster collaboration between appointees and their civil service colleagues.

An opportunity exists for President Trump, his Office of Presidential Personnel, and his Office of Personnel Management to reach out to leading providers of management training and request ideas for how joint learning could be conducted that would enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the administration.

I believe that finding a way to “Do the Right Things Well” is essential to restoring the confidence of the American people in their government. Good implementation of programs for the American people is not a partisan issue. It is the essence of achieving the results that the American people care about. 

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
3814 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104

(215) 898-7326

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