Lessons Learned: Past Political Appointees


DeSeveCoverIf you had a high level job, what advice would you leave for your successor?

The IBM Center released a new report today: “Speeding Up the Learning Curve:  Observations from a Survey of Seasoned Political Appointees,” by Ed DeSeve.  The survey was jointly sponsored by the National Academy of Public Administration, the Partnership for Public Service, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute.  At the time of the survey, DeSeve was with the Fels Institute.

According to the Washington Post, there are about 500 top political appointees that are appointed by the President to lead major federal agencies whose appointments must be confirmed by the Senate.  The outgoing Senate- confirmed appointees of President George W. Bush shared their insights in this September 2008 survey.  This was a seasoned group of appointees, often with prior public service.

Survey respondents offered six observations:

  • Knowledge of ethical standards and financial disclosure rules is needed to be rapidly effective.  This is especially true during the confirmation process, but this knowledge was seen as especially important in the early months in office.  Along with this came the need to be clear on what was expected of them.  Appointees wanted direction on how they would be measured in their jobs by the White House, as well.
  • Performance and results matter.  Survey respondents said they thought that two dimensions of performance were important or very important:  measuring organizational results, and evaluating employee performance.  Setting standards of performance and measuring progress against those standards was seen as more important than financial, contract, or pay and benefits management.
  • Policy development and implementation depend on understanding processes.  Appointees said four factors ranked high: (21) understanding the president’s priorities, (2) knowing how the executive branch works, (3) understanding the budget process, and (4) mastering the policy development process.
  • Managing relationships matter.  The group rated relationships with the Office of Management and Budget, career employees, and Congress were at the top of their list.
  • Leadership is a key competency.  All appointees surveyed cited leadership as an important competency.  This was followed closely by negotiation and communication skills.
  • Support of career executives is critical.  The survey indicated that successful political appointees felt career executives provided them with three essential ingredients:  (1) knowledge of the agency’s policies and processes, (2) support for the goals of new leaders, and (3) an understanding of the agency’s internal culture.

Of the 66 survey respondents, 56 percent noted that it took four or more months from the time they were officially nominated until confirmation.  In 10 percent of the cases, the time required was 10 months or more. (BTW, as of today, there are 100 people confirmed to top positions. . . .15 percent of the total).


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