Federal career employees make a transition work

There is no more important part of our system of government than the peaceful transition of power after a presidential election. Considering the importance of the work, the size of the U.S. government, and the short time new political leadership is expected to be prepared to manage its awesome responsibilities, transitions are always a tall order.

Career employees and how they interact with incoming and outgoing political leadership are crucial to a successful transition. While every department and bureau has specific program, policy, and operational issues that are particular to the organization, the needs of incoming political leadership are consistent across government.

Incoming political leadership often want objective analysis and a fresh perspective from career staff, all while wanting to ensure the continued implementation of critically important programs. Career staff can make avoidable mistakes when engaging with new leadership that can hinder transitions and damage relationships. It is with that in mind that we offer ten quick takes on ensuring career staff contribute to a successful transition. 

Top Ten Transition Reminders

  1. Honor your oath
    Working with political officials on important national issues is a privilege. Federal employees are servants of the people. Never lose sight that you should do your job, obey the law, and carry out your oath to support and defend the Constitution. While doing that, treat the outgoing and incoming leadership with respect and deference.
  2. Anticipate needs
    Policy officials appreciate staff that foresee problems and reduce their workload. Think through all aspects of a problem before presenting it to policy officials for further action. No leader has the time to consider every phase of a question as thoroughly as someone who is working closely with it. When a problem is presented, propose a solution or alternative solutions.
  3. Be professional
    Deal in facts and minimize the use of conjecture and adjectives. Trafficking in facts makes it easier to avoid criticizing past policy approaches and decisions. You will not gain long-term trust with new policy officials by criticizing previous policy officials and their decisions.
  4. Be objective
    Everything you do is as a representative of your organization. Demonstrate objectivity and detachment from issues. Do not personalize issues and avoid using phrases like, “I think” or “you should.” Policy officials will have difficulty accepting your objective analysis and perspective if it is presented as personal opinion.
  5. Listen
    The purpose of the relationship is to learn and understand appointees’ goals and to carry out their policies. Do research on their priorities, be prepared to listen, and ask questions to understand their perspective and direction. Don’t assume their priorities; learn them.
  6. Details matter
    Be precise with language and accurate with numbers. Pay attention to small issues. Early impressions are lasting impressions so keep that in mind with every interaction. It is also acceptable to say you will get back to policy officials if you don’t have the information readily available. They would rather have the right answer than an immediate answer. It can be hard to overcome providing incorrect information.
  7. Follow up
    Keep track of their requests and don’t let them be overtaken by the day-to-day disasters. Your organization and ability to be attentive to their needs builds confidence in the information you provide.
  8. Be patient
    The most common questions from new policy officials are procedural in nature. Often they are encountering federal systems for the first time. You should treat these questions, no matter how basic, as important. Answers should be complete and in plain English. You will never have credibility on substantive issues until you’ve established credibility on process.
  9. Empathize
    Policy officials are human beings. Staff must be sensitive to their desires, moods and needs. Do not ask a tired or sick policy official to make a complicated decision. Don’t overload new policy officials. You only ratify the stereotype of a government bureaucrat when you show up for the first meeting with an armful of documents that overwhelm.
  10. Don’t defend the status quo
    “That’s how we’ve always done it” is never the right answer. Also, don’t give appointees’ ideas short shrift by reacting with “we tried this before.” Remember that appointees are new to the process, so be supportive and responsive.

Career staff and their knowledge are the most important and valuable asset of the federal government. Ensuring that they represent their organizations in a professional and helpful way during a transition will provide benefits government-wide and to individual organizations. Being mindful of these top ten reminders will assist career staff in making every transition a successful one as the transfer of control occurs.

Don Bice is a former deputy assistant secretary for administration at the Agriculture Department. He is currently a director at BDO Public Sector, LLC.

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