Political Appointees – How To Make The Most Of Their Time

The political appointee is one of the most prized and most difficult positions in government. These individuals are plucked (mostly) from the private sector, dragged through the Senate confirmation process and handed the top-job at an agency. They are expected to lead, but often don't have the tools necessary to manage the difficult and nuanced world of the federal government.

Paul Lawrence is a partner at Ersten Young. He is also the author of What Government Does, How Political Executives Manage. The book presents the findings of a four year study of 42 top political appointees in the Obama Administration.

The book is full of behind-the-scenes insights and practical advice from government political executives on how they face management challenges in real time. In part one, of our interview with Lawrence, Chris Dorobek asked him what inspired him to write a how-to book for political appointees.

"I think now is the right time to talk about government management. I thought this book was important for a couple of reasons:

  1. I think there are lots of lessons for political appointees, perspective political appointees and the people that work for them, to better understand how to run our government more efficiently and effectively. I think the lessons learned from the people who have had the jobs really can be helpful.
  2. We also talked to 42 political executives while they were doing the jobs. We felt getting the information real-time was really important, because often after they leave they forget, and they forget in a way that they don’t remember how hard the problems were or the tools and techniques they use to get them, document them and share them with everybody," said Lawrence.

What makes managing in the government different than the private sector?

"It isn't so much that government management is harder, it is just so different. Folks who had in the federal government, seem to understand the government beast and really benefited from their previous time in government. They understand the pace, stakeholders and engagement. Folks that had not had that experience really felt the learning curve. They were also surprised quite frankly about how good the quality of the careerist as well. All of them wished there was some kind of class or orientation that could help them understand the relationship in their building, their agency, the relationship to OMB, the relationship to Congress. Folks that had been in an administration before really saw that naturally, others had to figure it out," said Lawrence.

What we would like the Office of Presidential Personnel to know about the political appointees?

"The titles are all the same, but the jobs are very different. What we learned from our work is how very different the jobs are and how the categorization is different. We broke the jobs into categories that more described what is going on in the jobs. This was an insight for White House personnel to better understand what the job was, what the characteristics needed to do that job well, and what the people that might be candidates for that job should look and feel like. At this level, everyone is smart and successful, but there really are different skills for the jobs. Nothing is more frustrating for a political executive than to wake up and be in the wrong job. To have gone through the confirmation process, be selected, and then to find out this isn’t for me," said Lawrence.

What are the varying roles of the Deputy Secretary?

"What we were surprised to learn was the different roles for the deputy secretaries:

  • There were lots of conversations about the relationship between the Secretary and the Deputy, the alter-ego, they are the outside person, I am the inside person.
  • Sometimes they were much more focused on being the chief operating officer. These folks did a lot of the convening, bring the folks from different departments together to work on issues.
  • There were policy advisors.
  • Sometimes they were charged with very important initiatives that they were tasked with leading. Crisis management and then dealing with stakeholders were two other options.

So the jobs, and what people did as deputy secretaries were very very different depending on the department and area of emphasis," said Lawrence.

Tomorrow Lawrence will tell us about political appointee's trends. 

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