Engaging Civil Servants


President-Elect Obama will be meeting with President Bush and living past-presidents on January 7th in the White House to learn first-hand about their experiences.  President Bush has no agenda, but one topic might be:  how to engage civil servants in carrying out large-scale changes.


President George H.W. Bush met with members of the Senior Executive Service a few weeks after he took office in 1989; senior executives who attended still talk about it, even though it included no give-and-take with his audience.   President-Elect Obama has been urged to emulate this event.


However, presidential scholar Dr. Martha Kumar notes that: “there is another model and one that has the benefit of working with President Obama’s strength of listening to people who have much to say in addition to telling people about the goals of the administration and their role in it. 


“When President Jimmy Carter came into office in 1977, one of his first actions was to do a series of visits to each of the then-eleven government departments to talk to career staff about the importance of their work to the success of his administration.  These were sessions held from January 26th to March 1st 1977, ones where President Carter learned a great deal about the programs and achievements of each of the departments and their agencies.  In each meeting, he spoke a few minutes about what his hopes were for the departments and his need for the support from the career staff.  But the longer part of these sessions was the question-and-answer part he had with departmental employees. In addition to all of their benefits, the preparation for these visits served as a quick initiation for President Carter into the programs and people of each of the eleven departments.”


Kumar notes, “In 2009, these kinds of sessions could serve several purposes:

* Let the career civil servants know President Obama plans a partnership with them and what their common goals will be.

* Remind the American people of the fine career staff working on their behalf in the federal government.

* Learn about departmental programs through the preparation for the individual events and the questions the career staff ask. The public would learn from such sessions as the press corps following President Obama would write about the event and the issues.”


She also observes that it offers the President an opportunity to tell employees what he wants from them and what they can do together.  About two-thirds of career senior executives have not been through a presidential transition, so this would be an opportunity to engage them as well.


Kumar has identified the weblinks to the transcripts of those long-ago meetings that President Carter held (which remind me a bit of the cabinet townhall meetings that Vice President Al Gore held as part of his reinventing government initiative in 1993).


She notes: “While the sessions last varying amounts of time, there are similarities among them.  At each one, President Carter talked about his administration and their important role in it.. . . his central message of the partnership of the President and career civil servants was a solid one for his audience and the country as well. He opened with remarks about the direction of his administration and then took questions from his audience varying from a half dozen to a dozen questions.  The queries included ones about administration policies, work place issues (labor unions, flex time, day care), regulations, and budgetary ones.” 

Was this the best use of a new President’s time in his first 100 days in office?  Will the pressures of the challenges facing President Obama allow this level of interaction?  Are there new ways of creating such interaction, given the Internet? These are questions the transition team is likely grappling with.  Still, this might be an interesting topic of conversation when the Presidents get together.


For the history buffs, here are the dates of each of the sessions at the then-eleven departments as they took place and a link to the transcript of each session as well.  They are an interesting trip back in history!


Department of Justice – January 26, 1977. This was a different session than the others as he went to Justice for the swearing-in of Attorney General Griffin Bell and did not have a question-and-answer session that was recorded. He took a tour of the department and most likely answered questions then.

Department of Labor – February 9

Department of Commerce – February  9  

Department of Treasury – February 10  

Department of Housing and Urban Development – February 10

Department of Health, Education, and Welfare – February 16

Department of Agriculture – February 16

Department of Interior – February 18

Department of Transportation – February 24

Department of State – February 24

Department of Defense – March 1

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