Collaboration with career staff is critical to appointees’ success
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Collaboration with career staff is critical to appointees’ success

March 23, 2023

The desire for political appointees to have strong partnerships with the career staff at their agencies animates the Partnership for Public Service’s Ready to Govern program.

Many appointees arrive from nonprofits, law firms, state governments and other industries with expertise that qualified them for their roles, but potentially with countless questions about processes and practices of the federal government. The best people to answer those questions are usually the career staff with years of experience tackling the unique challenges in each agency and office.

Yet in many cases, appointees and career staff have been thrown together with little time to learn each other’s styles and strengths. That’s why our Center for Presidential Transition’s Ready to Govern program was created: to help new political appointees hit the ground running. In addition to doing hands-on onboarding sessions with the Office of Presidential Personnel, the Center has developed new online resources for appointees to review as they start a new role.

These resources offer tips on collaborating with career staff and executing goals, as well as deep dives on topics specific to the federal environment such as understanding the federal budget process and the structure of the White House. In my experience as a political appointee, tips like these were critical for success – and it all started with establishing mutual trust with the career team.

For example, my career counterpart during my last federal job deserves most of the credit for our success. The week before I started as a political appointee, the senior career executive who had been acting in that role scheduled a lunch together. I was moving from a deputy chief of staff appointment – organizing workstreams for our Cabinet secretary behind the scenes – to a more public-facing assistant secretary position.

As the deputy assistant secretary with the most longevity in the office, Bob had briefed many new political appointees arriving to be his boss. While he walked me through a binder filled with annual conferences, counterparts to meet and staff vacancies to be filled – and as he told me about his own impressive background – I was struck by the peculiarity of our political system. Not every organization would place a relative outsider in charge of an office when there was such depth of knowledge, experience and leadership already there.

But I was bringing some useful knowledge to the office: awareness of what the White House and our secretary expected us to achieve; experience with key programs; warm relationships inside and outside our agency; and dedication to accomplish what was expected of us. Within a day, I developed a deep respect for the expertise and drive of all the career staff in the office.

Combined, we had a recipe for a strong team. Bob oversaw the countless tasks necessary to run our office, while I coordinated with our department’s leadership team on completion of our top priorities. Bob would advise me about where I needed to step in, and I would update him about relevant dynamics.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that, in highlighting this example, there are any number of other stories of dedicated political appointees and civil servants coordinating their knowledge, skills and drive to accomplish a department’s priorities. The Center for Presidential Transition can be of assistance, providing a wide range of resources to support political appointees and career staff as they work together to accomplish big goals to serve the public good.

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