Federal Executives Have Crucial Role After Elections

The Government Employee Relations Report™ comprehensively follows new developments that help you prepare for changes to public sector employment and personnel issues. Be prepared for changes in...

By Louis C. LaBrecque

Feb. 25 — Career executives in the federal government have an important role during presidential transitions that often isn't fully understood by new administrations, a group of former career executives, stakeholder representatives and analysts told Bloomberg BNA in recent interviews.

Executives should “lean in” during presidential transitions and not wait to be told what to do, according to Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service.

Agency executives can “feel that they are without leadership” during such transitions, Stier told Bloomberg BNA. “You have a bunch of talent that begins to leave, then there's a period when no one is in place” at the top of the agency hierarchy.

“I tell people not to think of themselves as leaderless. They are the leaders—it's their judgment that's needed,” Stier said.

Most likely, the new political team at any given federal agency following the election of a new president will have a few top priorities that are set by the campaign, he said. But it's up to career executives to ensure that the work of the agency continues while the new administration settles in, Stier said.

“The right approach is to understand that the president does get to decide policy,” he said. “But the president isn't going to decide on the full range of issues” that make up the agency's mission.

The partnership, a Washington-based nonprofit, describes its own mission as seeking to “revitalize” the federal government.

Bridge Between Career Workforce, Appointees

Shelby Hallmark and Joseph Mancias Jr., two retired federal senior executives who served at a variety of agencies, said in separate interviews that career executives act as a bridge between the federal workforce and the incoming political appointees during presidential transitions.

In some cases, political appointees can view career senior executives with suspicion as “legacy” employees from the last administration, Mancias told Bloomberg BNA. Federal executives should make it clear that their job is to assist the new administration while bringing political appointees—who often come from the private sector—up to speed on how the government works.

Empathy can be a helpful trait in building trust with new political appointees, Mancias said. He relayed how, on one occasion during his federal career, he and other executives at his agency were given 30 minutes by a political appointee—who had a military background—to explain how their programs worked.

“I gave my presentation in 18 minutes,” Mancias said. “I also gave him a package that he could read at his leisure.”

Political appointees in some cases may have unrealistic views about what they can accomplish during their relatively brief tenures in the federal government, Mancias said. But this isn't entirely a bad thing, he said.

“That's one of the pluses that new administrations bring,” he said. “The sense of urgency and getting on with it. While everybody's trying to do their best, there's some new energy” that can be beneficial to federal agencies.

Accomplishing `Great Things' Quickly

Hallmark told Bloomberg BNA that political appointees generally are “expected to accomplish great things and to do it very quickly.”

Given these expectations, he said, new appointees can be “suspicious or downright hostile” toward career executives and other federal employees.

By the time they leave, Hallmark said, they may have a different view—that “there are good folks” in government. “Everyone acknowledges over time that this happens, but the question is hitting the ground running,” he said.

In Republican administrations in particular, Hallmark added, political appointees from the private sector may be “taking a big pay cut and want to get back to their real jobs.”

“Often, they don't understand where all the levers are and how things work in government,” he said. But this “happens with both parties” and “doesn't necessarily track with ideology,” Hallmark said.

Although Hallmark called himself “a big fan” of President Barack Obama, he said the incoming administration after Obama's 2008 election generally was unresponsive to suggestions and recommendations from the Senior Executives Association, a Washington-based group that represents the interests of about 7,000 career federal executives. Both Hallmark and Mancias have served as chairs of the Board of Directors for the SEA.

“Maybe they didn't want to be too closely identified with the government,” Hallmark speculated. “Which was a shame,” he said, because the administration by being “standoffish” didn't move as aggressively as it could have to build relationships with career executives.

Impasse at DOL

The Obama administration isn't the first and won't be the last to be leery of career executives, Hallmark emphasized.

As a career executive at the Labor Department during the administration of President George W. Bush, Hallmark said, a new political appointee instructed him to stop working on the DOL portion of workers' compensation regulations that the appointee opposed.

The regulations were intended to implement a law that had been passed just before the November 2000 presidential election, Hallmark said. He said he continued to work on the regulations because he “knew what OMB's answer was going to be” when the White House Office of Management and Budget was asked whether it was possible to have the Justice Department write that portion of the regulations instead.

“I just kept working,” Hallmark said. In the end, he said, the appointee “ended up being very pleased” that the regulations were written within the tight deadline called for by the new law.

“It was a feather in her cap,” Hallmark said.

In general, Hallmark said, the 24-hour news cycle that exists today is causing political appointees to be even more careful about their images, which is making it even harder for new political appointees to trust the career workforce.

If a career federal employee “says something that's deemed to be problematic, that gets splashed on TV,” he said.

`Intersection' Between Appointees and Workforce

Carol Bonosaro, president emeritus of the Senior Executives Association, told Bloomberg BNA that an incoming administration is required by law to wait 120 days before issuing performance appraisals or ratings to career senior executives in the federal government.

This requirement is designed to avoid politicization of the executive branch, Bonosaro said.

“Senior executives are at that intersection between the transition team and the rest of the federal workforce,” said Bonosaro, a former federal executive who was president of the SEA from 1986 until last fall .

Serving as the go-between when a new administration takes office is “a real art to be learned” for career senior executives, particularly when it comes to preparing new agency leaders, Bonosaro added.

“What's the best way to brief them? How do you give them what they need but not overload them?” are some of the questions that career executives ask themselves during transitions, she said.

Bonosaro said that at the beginning of the Obama administration, she was surprised to learn that about half of the Senior Executive Service hadn't been through a presidential transition before.

“They hadn't had the experience of dealing with transition teams,” she said.

Jason Briefel, the SEA's new interim president , told Bloomberg BNA that the primary role of federal senior executives during presidential transitions is to ensure the continuity of agency operations while assisting with the transition.

“We do have an apolitical career service,” Briefel said. “That's a really important thing to stress in all of this.”

According to Briefel, the association supports legislation (S. 1172) introduced in April 2015 by Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) that is intended to facilitate the transfer of power to a new president, including by requiring each federal agency to designate a senior career employee to oversee transition activities.

The measure from Carper passed the Senate by unanimous consent in July. An amended version of the Senate-passed bill was approved in December by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Three Transition Scenarios

Most federal workers expect change when a president from a different political party than the outgoing president is elected, said Stier, of the Partnership for Public Service.

It may come as a shock to federal employees when a new president from the same political party takes a substantially different approach or when a president who has been reelected puts in a new political team, he said.

“The three scenarios are a lot less different than most people think,” Stier said.

“The last time we had a handoff to the same party was from Reagan to Bush. There were a lot of surprised people” when President George H.W. Bush, who had been vice president for eight years under President Ronald Reagan, took office in 1989 and brought in his own political team, Stier said.

Similarly, a president who wins a second term may face an exodus of agency leaders or may want to make changes in agency leadership for the new term, Stier said. In these situations, career employees at all levels may face less continuity than they might have expected, he said.

Presidential transitions are a “point of maximum vulnerability” for the federal government because of the disruption to the agency's leadership, Stier said. “There's a compelling need for a strong handoff,” he said.

Career senior executives in particular can respond by realizing that, “if anything, they have more power and control during transitions” than they will once the new leadership team is in place, Stier said.

“Sometimes there's an instinct to slow down” among career members of the SES, which is the opposite of what should be happening, he said.

`CEO of the Executive Branch'?

Robert M. Tobias, director of American University's Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation, told Bloomberg BNA that his primary recommendation for new administrations is to identify their three or four top policy goals. Then, within the first 60 days, the administration should organize meetings to discuss policy implementation that would include incoming political appointees, SES members and federal employee union leaders.

“People would learn about each other,” including the best ways to solve problems, “in a very quick way,” said Tobias, who was president of the National Treasury Employees Union from 1983 to 1999. The NTEU, an independent union that isn't affiliated with the AFL-CIO, represents about 150,000 federal workers across 31 agencies.

Although the public identifies the U.S. president as the “CEO of the executive branch,” Tobias said, no president has ever envisioned himself that way and sought to maximize the potential of the executive branch. Instead, presidents have either ignored the potential of the federal workforce or acted as if federal employees were “the enemy,” he said.

“The next president should view himself or herself that way,” Tobias said of the CEO concept. “A president who embraces federal employees and seeks their help and assistance will get incredibly good results.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com