Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: Shaking a nightmarish political appointee

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

We have a political appointee who just doesn’t care about anything except her own self-aggrandizement. She kicked out or encouraged many of our fantastic management and operations support team to leave, and directly hired her nephew and friends. Now, people are doing work previously done by two or even three people. [Also,] she’s only met with staff twice for a total of 20 minutes over the last two years.

Morale is at rock-bottom. The good professionals left are staying only because they believe in the mission so strongly. What can we do? –Anonymous federal employee

With stories like this, it can be hard to remember that most political appointees are well intentioned and hard working.

But, that doesn’t mean that we can ignore the stories about bad leadership. What can you and others like you do if a nightmare scenario like this federal worker’s becomes reality?

First, determine whether the political appointee is actually engaging in illegal or unethical behavior or whether she’s just a bad leader.

If she’s actually done something illegal – like hiring family members inappropriately – you can request a review by your agency’s inspector general or the Office of the Special Council. She might be in violation of the law if she’s hired family, but if another official hired her relatives without any influence by the appointee, that may be perfectly acceptable.

If she is not violating a law or regulations and she’s just a bad leader, here are some next steps that you and your colleagues can take:

Extend an olive branch. Your appointee may be so overwhelmed by her various responsibilities from spearheading new policies to tackling internal management issues that she is not thinking through decisions. Consider reaching out to the appointee directly or indirectly through some of her closest colleagues to share feedback about implementing best practices or providing assistance. This political may simply be unaware that there’s an issue.

Phone a friend. But if you suspect she may not take kindly to the feedback, rather than approaching her directly, try consulting with another trusted political appointee or career leader who you believe might influence the situation. They may be able to initiate some changes, such as granting her management responsibilities to other leaders on the team, reassigning her, or perhaps removing her or advising you on concrete coping mechanisms.

Wait it out. It’s important to remember that most political appointees remain for about 18 to 24 months, so she may be on her way. In that case, you may see a quick turnaround with new political leadership in place.

Exit stage right. If all else fails, consider looking for an opportunity with another team, office or agency depending on your specific circumstances.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jul 25, 2011 at 4:02 PM


Reader comments

Fri, Aug 12, 2011

"No wonder public employees get the poor reputations that they do not deserve." Absolutely. Political power is huge and leaves a legacy of poor performance and poor moral...and a bad reputation for all those associated. It cannot be fixed. It will not be fixed. Subordinates working for this kind of jerk have zero recourse in the fed because she's so well insulated by loopholes in the very laws designed to prevent this corrupt behavior. Unfortunately, variations of this event are more the rule than the exception I believe. Most 'managers' care ONLY about their careers, prestige and bonuses at year's end. It's called 'fear management'. As long as subordinates fear these _________s (submit your own adjective), they're fat and happy. Glad to be retiring soon.

Tue, Aug 9, 2011 Mark Minneapolis

I cannot believe that two suggestions are to wait it out or move to another job (exit stage right). It seems that no one wants to actually fix the problem. I would think that most political appointees would not suggest these ideas as a way to fix a problem employee working for you. No wonder public employees get the poor reputations that they do not deserve.

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