Political appointees may be getting to deep into agency technical operations

American University professor Bob Tobias talks about the problems with putting political appointees in charge of cybersecurity at federal agencies

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Cybersecurity abides as a top concern for federal agencies and at a growing number of agencies, you can find political appointees in charge of cybersecurity.  Bob Tobias, professor in the Key executive leadership program at American University, tells  Federal Drive with Tom Temin  why that may not be a great idea.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And this is a phenomenon we’re seeing, because cyber is the top objective for technology, you might say, at least in part for agencies. Bob, so why not have the power and prestige of political appointees running cyber?

Bob Tobias: Well, I think the fact is that political appointees create public policy and career civil servants implement the public policy created by political appointees. So the fact is, the cybersecurity public policy is clear. Zero tolerance for hacking into federal agencies. It’s clear now, was clear in the past, it will be clear in the future. We don’t need political appointees to create new policy in this new world. What we really need are the smartest, most experienced, public service motivated leaders that federal agencies can find to implement the zero tolerance policy.

Tom Temin: Well, recently, one of our own reporters, Jason Miller, had a story saying that, yes, some agencies are definitely going with political appointees. A couple of large departments decided to stick with career people for cyber. And the differences is, when you walk into some kind of White House convened meeting, or you are meeting with an industry group, or you are perhaps testifying to Congress, there’s more, I don’t know, power, more prestige, more weight to the political appointees than to the career people no matter how gifted they might be.

Bob Tobias: Well, I think that’s generally true. And it’s generally true, because what political appointees are doing are implementing presidential policy. And so these folks need the backing of the president, when they’re talking to outsiders about the policy. But in this case, in these circumstances, the public policy is career. What we need is leadership ability, and technical expertise. We need people who are going to stay longer than the normal two-year political appointee tenure, we need experienced leaders, someone with technical expertise, who’s able to attract other smart people. Who’s capable of creating and leading effective teams that can and will achieve the zero tolerance goal. And I think it’s also important to note, Tom, that in the federal employee viewpoint scores, agencies that have career leaders score higher than those who are led by political appointees.

Tom Temin: Well, now those people that you mentioned, the highly motivated, technically competent, long-term servants that are career, they’re still there under the political appointees. So when you have both, what should the political appointee best do then?

Bob Tobias: Well, every leader thinks their point of view needs to be implemented, every leader when they come in, thinks change must occur. So what we have is political leaders who come in, and then there’s a new term, there’s a new strategic plan, there’s a new articulated direction, even if the old direction is being sustained. So it’s this constant churn that I think we ought to avoid. I think we need a longer term focus than two years to create a strategic plan, buy the technology that’s needed, implement it, and test whether it’s good or not, that a political appointee in a two-year tenure will never do.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Bob Tobias. He’s a professor in the Key executive leadership program at American University. So just to further your point, I’ll make an analogy. The Social Security Administration has very few political appointees. And the reason is, it’s mostly a functional agency to carry out the issuance of checks, basically, to people that qualify under any number of programs. The policy, of course, is set totally by Congress, not by the Social Security Administration. So it sounds like you’re saying that’s the model for a lot of domains where policy continues, regardless of who’s in power.

Bob Tobias: I think that’s right on the mark. I think that’s right on the mark. Tom, if there’s no issue about policy, then the only issue is about funding. And I believe that in this arena in this time, expertise speaks louder and more persuasively than does a political appointee who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about in the cybersecurity arena.

Tom Temin: Well, just again, to play devil’s advocate, suppose the cybersecurity appointee came right out of industry where he or she was a cybersecurity executive.

Bob Tobias: That would be great, and they might speak with great expertise, with great background and great experience, and then they’re gone in 720 days.

Tom Temin: Yeah, if that long. But on the other hand, if you have the career people there to carry out the continuity to understand the technology and the details of the agency, isn’t the polit good to have there maybe just at least to run interference and get the budget money that often the career people say they could use more of?

Bob Tobias: Well, that would be the case, I could see that, if this new expert from the outside would actually not try to change the direction of those led, because I know better.

Tom Temin: Well, have you witnessed in your career? I mean, you were a labor leader. And you’ve had a lot of experience with federal employee bargaining units in your time. Have you seen a case where the political and career leadership complex worked for the betterment of the agency?

Bob Tobias: I did see a situation in the Internal Revenue Service where the commissioner who has a five-year term, but is a political appointee, attracted a very, very talented, gifted, technology executive who really advanced the IRS. But in that situation, I think it was the combination of a political appointee who had a long-term focus, coupled with an executive from the private sector, who also had a long-term focus. And that was the best of both worlds.

Tom Temin: So then the idea that political appointees in term situations that may transcend a given administration, by definition have to if they have five years, that might be a more advantageous way to approach these enduring problems?

Bob Tobias: I think so, Tom. I think so. But in the meantime, when agencies across the government, very few agencies have heads with term appointments, I think we have to really think hard about whether we want political appointees who are leaving every two years, or a gifted civil servant who can lead in this very difficult, challenging time.

Tom Temin: Bob Tobias is a professor in the Key executive leadership program at American University.


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