Posts Tagged ‘Department of Labor’

Engaging Civil Servants

January 2, 2009

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


Agency Transition Efforts

July 14, 2008
Department of Labor

Department of Labor

There are some stirring in different agencies with regard to preparation for the transition.

Department of Labor

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in the Department of Labor’s annual conference of its entire senior executive corps. A large chunk of the meeting focused on the upcoming presidential transition and how it might affect the work of the Department. About two-thirds of the Department’s career senior executives are new to their roles since the last transition in 2000. So there was a lot of interest in the topic!

I was invited to provide an overview of the four stages of the transition process and provide some insights as to the potential effects of the transition on the department, its programs, and for career executives. The interesting part, though, was a panel of seasoned senior executives from the Department, some of who noted that their first transition was between Presidents Nixon and Ford.

The panelists noted that every transition they had been through was different but they had some insights based on accumulated wisdom:

• Departing officials need to know what records they can take and what they must leave behind.

• Agency staff should be helpful to the post-election transition team but work through pre-determined channels that are defined by the outgoing administration and the incoming transition teams. A note of caution was offered. Because the post-election transition team is likely not comprised of federal employees, agency staff cannot share certain documents. If they share information, even informally, with the team about pre-decisional budget materials, pending lawsuits, etc., the government may be waiving its privilege to keep that information out of the public eye and it may be subject to public release of that information under the Freedom of Information Act. This could jeopardize law enforcement actions, or other normally confidential proceedings.

• The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 defined the issue of “who’s in charge” during the transition. The incoming president can appoint an official to be in charge in an “acting” capacity at least temporarily, but absent that, the highest-ranking career official will temporarily hold the job, but not necessarily in an “acting” capacity. Most agencies define an order of succession before the transition occurs. In Labor, one political appointee was left behind from the Clinton Administration until President Bush’s Secretary of Labor was confirmed, then that person resigned.

• Field staff tends to feel some anxiety about what is happening during the transition in Washington. The panelists’ advice was: continue doing their job, and continue applying the law (e.g., in enforcement actions) but keep the new team apprised of what is going on.

• The panelists encouraged their fellow senior executives to make an extra effort to communicate with field staff during the transition – share what they know about what the new team is asking questions about, describe any changes to the decision-making process, and fix any web pages with the names of recently departed officials!

• The panelists observed that there will be a period where trust between the new political appointees and the career executives will have to be re-built. They mentioned the 120-day “getting to know you” period where new politicals cannot move a career executive to a different position involuntarily.

• They noted that they should all be ready to answer a lot of questions that start with “Why?”

Assistant Secretary Patrick Pizzella offered that the Department was in the process of establishing an internal transition team in accordance with guidance from the President’s Management Council. This process will define briefing book formats, etc., but will also determine which career executives will provide leadership during the transition period. The goal is to ensure a smooth transition – and when the new team asks for information, the answer isn’t “this hasn’t been updated in a few years.”

One of the senior executives, Shelby Hallmark, shared an interesting insight with his peers: that for the career senior executives, “the transition is our largest opportunity to serve.” He observed that mid-level managers, especially those new to government, who have never been through a presidential transition, will turn to their senior executives for guidance on how to engage the new leadership. It’s a period when the career executives become the cross-roads for information and they need to be especially mindful of this during the transition period.

What’s going on in other agencies in regard to preparation for the transition?

• The Washington Post had a story about the Justice Department’s commitments yesterday.

Federal Times is interested in knowing as well. It dedicated a webpage to tracking what is happening at the agency level. There haven’t been any posts to the page so far, though.

• There has been a lot of congressional interest, beyond the homeland security arena where Congress has already required transition planning in law. Several agencies have received congressional inquiries asking for copies of transition plans. A Senate committee plans to hold a hearing in the next few weeks to quiz the Administration on its broader plans.

• I understand that the President’s Management Council and the Office of Management and Budget are putting the final touches on a government-wide guidance memo that will be going out shortly. No scorecard, though!