Four words to get you through transition: Take a deep breath

In the dim past when federal jobs were mostly patronage, a change in administration posed a far more tangible threat to careers and livelihoods than it does today. The modern civil service rests on a far more sustainable theory.

So why is everyone so overwrought about the presidential transition coming up?

The National Academy of Public Administration, the Partnership for Public Service, several consulting companies, and now the Senior Executives Association have produced seminars, discussion groups, white papers, management guides — just reams of advice.

And it’s good material. It’s no trivial matter when a new president comes in because it brings thousands of new appointees. They’ll arrive from one of two buckets. Some will get there with an earnest attitude of pitching in and helping a hard-working career workforce carry out new policy. Others will stomp in and lord over you slugs while adding a notch in their resume.

How lucky are you feeling?

Chat with Alastair Thomson, CIO of NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Aug. 16 at 11 a.m. Sign up here.

As former intelligence community personnel guy Ron Sanders says, it takes a year for even the good politicals to get the fact that that career people really can help them accomplish something. Sanders thinks a fair number of Senior Executive Service members will take the opportunity to retire.

In reality, people tend to have inertia in their jobs. A long time ago when I worked in Boston, the company was going through a bad patch. New executive vice presidents would come and go. One day a guy arrived. I made an appointment to see him, so I could maybe ensure a project for which I had tentative budget approval didn’t get the ax. “Bill” was so busy with trying to find out what the hell his job was, and dealing with the parade of supplicants, that I waited 90 minutes in the outer office. He was cordial when I finally made it in, close to lunchtime. I noticed on his credenza a bagel that looked like it had been there since 7 a.m., a single bite taken out of it. I felt for the guy.

He turned out to be a tough S.O.B. with a drinking problem. I felt he was well intentioned, and my life didn’t really change. I was wise to stick it out. The poor guy was fired six months later. I stayed for years because I liked the work itself, in spite of the endless executive turnover.

People can be driven to hit the road. Only once did I ever come close to actually quitting a job. One day, I excused myself for a long lunch break, drove to National Airport, flew to New Jersey for a job interview, had the interview and tour of the offices, flew back, drove back to my office, and waltzed in for the rest of the afternoon. Actually, I did it twice. I didn’t get the job, which worked out in the long run.

As for the presidential transition, let’s be real: 99 percent of what you do every day won’t change. So ask yourself, what is the worst that can possibly happen?

If you work for, say, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, I’ll guarantee you a new boss won’t come in an announce: “We are no longer going to be sending hard-earned tax dollars to old, poor people.”

Not to say policy can’t drive people out. Suppose you work for the EPA. And suppose a current proposed rule says widget factories can spew no more than two parts per gazillion of C7H5NO3S out their stacks. Now suppose the new crew comes in and proposes three parts per gazillion. If you believe that extra part per gazillion will poison the public, you’ve got a moral dilemma that might make you want to resign.

Come January (or February or sometime in 2018) when that new political walks in, remember he’s probably as nervous about you are you are about him. Just take a deep breath.


Sign up for breaking news alerts