Federal Coach

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

Blog archive

Federal Coach: Leading in the last two years of an administration

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

With only two years remaining for the Obama administration, it might be easy for agency leaders, both political and career, to assume they are in a lame duck situation and can’t get much done.

The truth is that agencies can accomplish a great deal in the next 24 months, according to Edward Montgomery, dean of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. Montgomery was a former official in the Clinton and Obama administrations, and part of the faculty for the Partnership for Public Service’s “Ready to Govern” political appointee leadership program.

In an interview, Montgomery said it is essential for politically appointed leaders to establish a set of realistic priorities and expectations, and to make it clear that “the people’s business” will continue until the very last day of the administration.

This attitude, he added, must be conveyed to and adopted by the career executives, and communicated throughout the entire organization. It means that both the political and career leaders must let employees know they care about the mission and are committed to moving forward.

“If you don’t set those expectations, people will begin to wind down,” Montgomery said. “The key thing is to set the right tone that there is work to be done.”

While advancing a set of policy priorities is obviously important, and in some cases may be directed from the White House, it is critical to be realistic about what can get done in the time remaining. This means making choices, establishing timelines, monitoring progress, breaking down barriers to foster success, and getting buy-in from important external constituencies that may well include Congress.

In addition to working on policy goals, most of which will probably already be in the pipeline, Montgomery and others say it is critical for the leadership to place an emphasis on management issues — procedures, systems and people — that will make the agency run more smoothly and deliver more efficient services that will last well beyond the remaining two years.

This could involve investing in information technology to streamline the agency's work, or taking steps to improve the quality of the agency's environment. It could mean breaking logjams, making changes in how employees are promoted and rewarded, and engaging in succession planning so that top-tier employees are positioned to become members of the career Senior Executive Service.

Establishing a strong foundation in operational areas could well carry across administrations and have a more lasting impact than some of the programmatic ideas. Montgomery suggests imagining the type of agency you wished you had when you arrived, and making sure you try to leave it in that shape when you walk out the door.

It also is crucial for politically appointed leaders to fully engage the career executives in the policy and management initiatives, and to get their advice and commitment. Career leaders need to be part of the process in order to achieve successful outcomes. They know how to get things done and they will be the ones to carry on the mission after political appointees are long gone. But it’s also important to understand the culture of the career workforce, which is often risk-aversion.

Career executives, for their part, need to be vocal about where they are frustrated and what can help them do their jobs better.

There's also the likely possibility of congressional oversight, which may increase in these last two years and will require both political and career leaders to have their antennas up to avoid the pitfalls.

“They (Congress) love travel scandals and conference scandals, and they love to see how good you are with the people’s money,” Montgomery said. “Inevitably something will go wrong, so expect lots of oversight.”

The bottom line is that both political appointees and career leaders care about the missions of their agencies and want to do the best they can to serve the American people. The clock may be ticking and politics will always be part of the equation, but with a strong sense of priorities and a laser-like focus, positive things can happen. A key element of this effort is laying the groundwork so those who follow can continue the work that was started. This is one way for leaders to leave a true legacy.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jan 27, 2015 at 12:37 PM

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