Career/Political Relations: Making an Agency Hum or Produce Horror Stories

One of the greatest predictors of success and failure within the Executive Branch seldom receives any attention and remains largely underappreciated except by those who quietly share horror stories among trusted confidants. This predictor, so to speak, is the health of the relationships between career executives and non-career (political) appointees within the top ranks of government who run nearly every department and agency. As a senior executive who served in both capacities, first as a career SES at the Department of Homeland Security and later as a 'political' SES at the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, I gained the perspectives of both types of appointments through personal experiences and extensive dialogue with colleagues across the government. Most of my colleagues agree that there are at least two solid reasons for the lack of attention to the issue: Discussing it in poor tones does little to enhance the career of the orator, and the wisdom gained through past practices wears thin immediately after a presidential or secretarial transition.

However low the tolerance is for such conversations, these relationships frame the coming successes and failures of the government as a whole, and its effects are palpable across the entire federal workforce, the Congress, the press and the American people writ large. Some career executives are not happy to hear that the burden of these relationships typically rests with them. While it is true that it takes two to tango and the non-career executive or political appointee certainly bears no less responsibility for facilitating a working environment with permanent staff, the career executive possesses the insight, history and connections to make the agency hum under any administration.

A great place to start with the new head of agency or the novice non-career colleague is to define the relationship itself. In doing so, it is most important to deftly explain and exhibit that regardless of political affiliations, life experiences and professional diversity, everyone is on the same team at the start and end of each day. Assure that the career staff will work to make certain that the agency's decorum will prevail at a professional level at all times, and acknowledge that the appointee may have agenda items that need to be recognized. This sets the initial tenor of the relationship and may provide an air of relief to an otherwise anxious and perhaps nervous appointee.

Continue to build confidence in your new appointee by acknowledging the similarities and differences in the motivations of career versus non-career executives. Everyone is responsible for ensuring legal and ethical operations and conduct. However, the non-career executive may focus more on immediate goals passed down from the administration while the career executive will also focus on the long-term stability, performance, and resource outlook of the agency. Therein lays the formula for tensions when lofty short-term goals interact with regulations and limited resources, but therein lies also the opportunity for the savvy career executive to employ tools of the trade to promote reasonable goals that were agreed to and confirmed among top officials. At its very core, it is setting expectations through the comprehensive and mutual understanding of roles, capabilities and risks.

This is easier said than done, yes. Nevertheless, in the absence of first providing the foundation from which a healthy relationship can grow, that relationship is likely to fail, taking everything and everyone within arm's reach down with it. This is why the burden of these relationships rest with the career executive: It will be your mess to clean. On the other hand, if the stage is set for a fulfilling relationship that is based on honesty and mutual, realistic goals, the career-appointee connection can be extremely empowering, enabling both to accomplish feats that no genre of executive can do alone.

If you would like guidance regarding a change in leadership or if you are simply planning for the inevitable and would appreciate the opinions of a seasoned executive, contact SEA member services. Conversely, if you would like to volunteer as a seasoned executive who is ready to help your colleagues, please drop SEA a line (at briefel@seniorexecs.org) because new executives (and sometimes even seasoned ones) can use another perspective.

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