What it’s like for newly appointed employees

For one view of what the heck goes on those first few days and weeks, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, Max ...

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They come from think tanks, academia, Capitol Hill, even corporate life. They’re the appointed employees of a new administration ranging from Schedule C to Senate confirmed. For one view of what the heck goes on those first few days and weeks, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, Max Stier.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Max, I guess some people reported to work yesterday, immediately after the inauguration. The rest maybe wait till today. Some of them haven’t gotten their jobs yet. But what do appointees actually do when they first get there?

Max Stier: So it is a huge operation and just the sort of scope here, you’re talking about 4,000 political appointees, 1,200-plus that need Senate confirmation. And as you suggest, the Biden team has been really aggressively organizing since the spring of last year, and will have in place, I believe more political appointees than any prior administration. So they did start arriving yesterday, immediately after the inauguration. President Biden is responsible for everything on second one after being sworn in. It’s a little bit like the Big Bang – they’re spread out across the entire government and one of the first things that they really need to do is to check out what’s going on actually, inside the agencies. Obviously, there were agency review teams that were in place beforehand to find out what’s going on. But truth is that you don’t really know until you get there and can dig in more deeply and are actually in charge.

Tom Temin: I imagine there’s a lot of administrivia you have to go through. You have to get [Personal Identity Verification] cards or access cards and log ons, and all of that kind of stuff. And even for a regular civil service employee, there’s a lot of that to do. That’s also true of the new people appointed, correct?

Max Stier: Absolutely, as you say, there are a lot of sort of operational things that have to get in place. And it’s plainly more complicated, because most of these work environments are operating largely virtually. So that adds another layer of complication. But you know, the substance of their job right now is to figure out what’s going on to ensure that they are starting right with a career workforce. And again, as you know, very well, the true heart and engine of our government is the career workforce and one of the most important things that political leadership has to do is to engage the career team, and to create a good relationship with them and to find out from them what’s going on, and what priorities they should really be focused on. So there’ll be a set of things that they need to move forward on that have been identified already in the transition, the 100-day plans, etc. But a lot that actually needs to get done inside the agencies is really figuring out what’s happening and how they can engage with that career workforce to move forward on vital issues like the vaccine rollout, or the cyber attack response, or the climate change priorities. The list is phenomenally important, large and complex.

Tom Temin: Sure. So first thing is get your card and access. Second thing, get your log on. Third thing is get those senior executives in and really have a heart to heart with them, I would imagine?

Max Stier: For sure, and its senior executives, but it’s also the layer below them. I mean, the team coming in, and this makes it more complicated. There’ll be very few of the Senate-confirmed people in, you know, and certainly it’s going to take a while to get them in at scale. So it’s going to be the non-Senate-confirmed folks that will be there, sort of directing the policy approaches that the Biden team will want to see happen. And you’re absolutely right, it is going to be ensuring that they’re working effectively with that career leadership to engage the government. The worst mistake that’s ever made is the political team coming in and believing they can recreate a command and control system, outside the normal lines that the career workforce actually is responsible for. So, you know, building that relationship at the outset, finding out from them, what are the problems? I mean, the truth is that a lot of problems don’t get surfaced in ordinary transition process. And I think this one was much worse than normal. So there are going to be a lot of landmines out there that the new team coming in, needs to identify quickly, and to address quickly. And then they also need to move forward the good things that are happening that sometimes get lost in the shuffle, and that’s to no one’s benefit.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Max Stier, founder and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. And yes, with respect to some of the landmines what do you imagine some of those might be? Because they vary, I guess, from agency to agency.

Max Stier: Absolutely. I mean, I think there’s one issue that, you know, is probably going to be apparent in more than one agency. And that’s this question of burrowing. You know, are there people who have improperly come from political spots and been put into career positions. They’re going to be the normal, just the problems, the challenges that any large government entity is having to deal with. And, you know, my own sense is that in many places, the Trump team was not very transparent with the Biden folks about what those problems actually were. There’s some issues that are also the making of the Trump team on their way out. I mean, I think there were many instances in which, bluntly, sand was poured in the machine. So fixing those issues will be important as well.

Tom Temin: Sure. And the people that are able to get to work – that is, that are not Senate confirmed – it’s safe to assume they have already been through whatever disclosures and ethics issues they have to settle. I mean, that’s a legal requirement. And so is it safe to assume that they are done with their process of clearing themselves with respect to the ethics disclosures?

Max Stier: So yes, the folks coming in will have had to already engage with the ethics process a lot of forms. Likelihood is that there’s more for them to do that some of this may be interim ability to get in, but that there’s additional work that they have to do around their disclosures. But the process itself is quite extensive. That is a legal process and then the Biden team itself has issued its own ethics requirements that, again, the incoming team will have to abide by. So there are a lot of hoops that have to be gone through. And, you know, part of it is also creating relationships across the government. So you know, one of the things that you talked about is the very practical, how do you get access to your computer to the building, whatever else it might be. The other onboarding that they need to do is to really learn about the critical government processes for those that haven’t been there before, working with a career workforce, things like the federal budget process. This is actually something we have a whole curriculum that we’ve developed around called ready to govern. And sort of the things that no one in the right mind will understand, but are really vital to your success. So that onboarding should be taking place as well. And then you really want people to not only create relationship with the career workforce, but amongst each other for the political team, and also with their colleagues across government, because most of the big problems that government has to address requires multi-agency response. So getting people to learn about each other, develop relationships, it’s really vital to the actual functioning of government over time.

Tom Temin: And I guess it’s incumbent on everyone to maybe stop waging the election, because there are people with strong feelings on both sides. It’s going to be three or four weeks till the next election starts. And so in that period of time, probably and this is true with a career workforce, too, because they do have feelings, again, on both sides as to say, that’s done and over, let’s just get on with what’s ahead now, and kind of leave the past in the past.

Max Stier: Well, certainly, I think it’s important not to be carrying around grudges. I do think that there are things from the past that have to still be addressed. And again, you know, whether it’s burrowing or some other issue. But the reality is that, you know, our government is responsible right now, for so many critical issues, and really focusing on resolving those to the benefit of the American public is job number one. Part of that is going to have to be actually building the capability of government back. And that includes focusing on the existing workforce and improving morale. It’s also going to be about bringing new talent in, because there’s so much to be done. And frankly, we are missing generational diversity amongst other forms of diversity in our government. So there’s a really extraordinarily large and diverse set of problems that we face as a nation, and our government is central to resolving, you know, pretty much all of them.

Tom Temin: And just one final question, people that are coming in for the first time. I mean, a lot of people coming into the Biden administration have been around a while. They have had prior administration jobs, but those that are new might be coming from different environments, and the culture inside the federal government as a workplace is quite different from corporate. And that’s probably something people might have some challenges getting used to.

Max Stier: Yes, and I think for both cohorts, so for those that are new to government, there is a lot that they need to learn. And it’s not intuitive. And for those that have been there before, there is high value, because the learning curve is so steep, and runway so short. But even for those that have been there before, there’s new things to learn. And one of the risks is, having been there before, you may be unwilling to challenge some of the things that you either assume have to be or that you’ve done before. Our government, through the pandemic has changed a great deal. There’s been a lot of innovation that’s taking place. And frankly, I think one of the opportunities for the new administration and for the career workforce is to harvest those innovations. Just the fact that our government can operate virtually so well. And in many instances better than it did in person. We should be learning from that and making that our forward state not just the you know, the response to the crisis, but actually use that change to the benefit of our government and to the public for the time when we get past the crisis.

Tom Temin: Max Stier as CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. As always, thanks so much.

Max Stier: Thank you so much to and look forward to the days ahead and lots of important issues. So thanks for your work.

Tom Temin: Indeed. We’ll post this interview at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Subscribe to the Federal Drive at Podcastone or wherever you get your shows.

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