Advice to the New Administration: Don't Plan Memoirs--And Try To Have Fun

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Once again Washington resembles a city under siege. No, the British aren't at the gates; it is, rather, the coming of a new set of political leaders who engineered a peaceful takeover of the executive branch on Jan. 20.

The weapon of choice in the 1992-93 version of siege is paper--usually a resume. Resumes are flying everywhere and to anyone who seems to be on the "inside.'' And then, of course, there are those resumes of the several thousand who have but a short time left before the paychecks stop coming and they must clear out their offices and surrender their keys and parking spaces to the victors.

For all practical purposes the whole policymaking apparatus of the federal government is on hold and will remain so until enough political appointees are named and confirmed. This will then permit the Clinton Administration to shift into at least second gear. If the first days of the Bush Administration are any guide, that will not be until well into the spring of next year.

Having served as a political appointee in two Republican administrations, and having observed similar sieges in 1976 and 1980, I offer a few observations and general notes of caution.

Have a vision. Even though the new President may have articulated a general vision for the federal government and even your agency, you must have one for your piece of the operation that is both consistent with and more specific than the one conveyed by the President and your agency head.

On the other hand, don't throw out everything that was done by your predecessor simply because it "wasn't invented here.'' Chances are high that they also had some good ideas (See related Commentary on page 31). Abrupt changes in direction may only serve to confuse your constituency, anger Congress, and make the career staff even more cynical about changes in political leadership.

As new people come on board, their first tendency will likely be to form into small groups of new appointees, circle the wagons, and exclude senior-level civil-service people on the assumption that since they had spent years working with Republican appointees, they must be "tainted.''

Big mistake.

The career people know more than you can ever hope to know. They can prevent disasters, keep you from looking like a rank amateur, provide valuable insights and historical perspective that will prevent you from appearing naïve. The final decisions will, of course, be made by and belong to the new Administration.

A second major mistake that is often made is to fail to ask questions, listen, and learn everything you can about your job and your agency or department. Know the programs, learn how they work, and memorize the budget. All too many appointees think that they can breeze through and spend most of their time giving speeches and "making policy.'' If you don't know what your agency does, in detail, you will quickly be unmasked as a neophyte and your credibility and effectiveness will diminish faster than you can imagine.

Ethical violations, real and perceived, are the rocky shoals that sink many an appointee. Even if you are sure what you have done is O.K., think how it might look the next morning on the "Federal page'' (worse yet, the front page) of The Washington Post. The little things will kill you--a free lunch from an "interested party,'' accumulating airline miles in your personal account, arranging a trip back home to give a speech that just happens to be on the weekend of the big game or your niece's wedding, a complimentary basket of fruit, an autographed book. Keep the phone number of your agency's ethics officer close at hand. You might even add him or her to your speed dialer.

Communicate. Seems logical doesn't it? Yet, more poor morale is created by the failure of the political leadership to communicate than you can imagine. Tell people what is going on ... and why. Do it frequently. Schedule meetings during which people can ask questions. And demand that those political appointees that report to you have their own staff meetings in which they let people know what you are thinking and why.

Get to know people. Many who come into political positions treat career staff members like furniture. They never get to know their names, never ask about their families, vacations, and personal goals. Practice "management by walking around,'' a concept legitimized by Tom Peters in In Search of Excellence. You will be amazed at the positive impact it has on morale.

You should also learn to defy the organization chart. Don't hesitate to call someone who knows the answer to a question or whom you have heard has some good ideas. You will find some gems who are buried in the bureaucracy. They may have run afoul of someone, or simply never found their niche. If you find some gems, liberate them, promote them, and, most of all, challenge them. Chances are, you will be surprised at the results.

Next, don't panic when that first leak occurs. They will occur, and there is almost never any way to find out who was responsible. In fact, trying to do so will sap your energies, make you look foolish, and do more harm than good. Forget it. Move on. Don't do anything to keep the issue alive. If you don't, chances are about nine in 10 that it will be forgotten in a week.

Get to know the interest groups that come with your territory. Don't ignore them and don't make enemies. Remember, those interest groups will outlast you every single time. Communicate with them, make them allies. They are usually anxious to work with you, and flattered by some attention. Remember that their greatest strength is in killing something that they either don't like or don't understand.

Cultivate Congress, even if it means that you have some informal, off-the-record meetings that are not coordinated through your legislative-affairs office. However, do not use these sessions to promote a personal agenda. You are part of the team. Use these sessions to build trust, understanding, and confidence in you. When you have proposals that will come before or be of interest to Congress (like regulations), go and work out your differences in advance. If you don't, chances are that you will lose unless the President and/or the Secretary personally intervenes and is willing to cash in some chips.

In getting to know Congress, remember that there are both the elected and the unelected--representatives, senators, and their staffs. You must get to know both. Never make the mistake of cultivating an elected official and ignoring his or her staff. You will need them now and later, when the only way your agency or program will prosper will be with a friend at court when the staff begins negotiations before their elected bosses show up. Most of all, don't wait for a crisis to establish these relationships.

You should also try to find an "angel,'' an elected official who cares about what you are doing, sits on the right committees, and is willing to go to bat for you. Often that person may be a middle-ranking or even more junior member who is trying to establish his or her reputation.

Get to know and love your Office of Management and Budget budget examiner and that examiner's boss. Don't make the mistake of thinking that you are a highfalutin Presidential appointee who has been confirmed by the Senate and your O.M.B. examiner is a G.S. 13 or 14. Believe me, that is the most powerful G.S. 13 you will ever encounter. If they aren't convinced about the worth of your agency and programs, as well as your own competence, you will be in for a very rough time when budget season comes around.

Return phone calls, or see that they are returned. That call today may turn out to have been valuable at some later time when you least suspect it.

Don't plan, or act like one of your major goals is to write your memoirs. It will have a chilling effect on the conversations and meetings you take part in. Besides, how many people will really buy a book titled My Four Years on the Fourth Floor of Federal Office Building 6, or In Search of Governmental Excellence in the Employment and Training Administration?

Remember that there are three staff offices in every department and independent agency that proclaim they are there to be of service--personnel, general counsel, and procurement. Don't believe them. Their first and highest mission is to keep themselves out of trouble. That means following every rule devised by man (and woman). If you are told that something will get done by March 1, get it in writing, ask for periodic reports, and get someone close to you to track things.

Find a confidential assistant/executive secretary that you trust and can joke with. There are days when that may be the only person you can talk with. Assume that most of his or her time will be taken up with just managing your schedule and being your goodwill ambassador.

Fight for people you really want on board as political appointees, but don't make the mistake of allowing your office or agency to become the dumping ground for these "Schedule C's.'' If you have a staff of 400 to 500 people, there should not be more than a handful of C's. When I took over at the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement in 1989, there were nearly 20 C's. I quickly cut that number in half. You should never surround yourself with political appointees. Maintain a mixture of both career and political staff members.

A final tip: Have fun. Remember, it will all be over sooner than you can imagine, no matter how the 1996 election comes out. There are days (and nights) when you will long for the peace and solitude of those pre-Washington times. But there will also be times that you would never trade--your first Congressional hearing, that White House meeting, the applause from a good speech. Never forget that it is all temporary. There will come that day, whether after the election that went the other way or when a new leader comes on board who wants his or her own people, when it will all be over. As a good friend at the U.S. Labor Department said, the day after the election it was like someone had thrown a big switch. Phones fell silent, speech invitations dried up, reporters quit calling, and career people seemed somehow embarrassed to run into you in the elevator.

Never mind. If you have done well, you will have your own memories and many friendships that will last you for a lifetime. And, with any luck, you will have had fun and made a difference in national policy. What better legacy to share with your grandchildren.

Vol. 12, Issue 18, Pages 33, 44

Published in Print: February 3, 1993, as Advice to the New Administration: Don't Plan Memoirs--And Try To Have Fun
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