Federal Coach

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

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Federal Coach: How career executives can navigate the presidential transition

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

President-elect Donald Trump’s transition landing teams have begun to descend on federal agencies across the government. These men and women are charged with providing the new administration information about the responsibilities of the various agencies as well as the challenges ahead.

For federal employees, this can be an unsettling time with many unknowns that include probable policy changes and new personalities calling the shots. But it also can be an opportunity for career executives to lay the groundwork for productive working relationships with the new team.

There is no magic formula. It is really about career executives providing the transition team members with useful information, offering the best possible insights and meeting their requests whenever possible.

Edward Hugler, the deputy assistant secretary for operations at the Department of Labor and a veteran of presidential transitions, advises that managers who confer with the transition landing teams should “anticipate and be prepared to give them what they need” without trying to provide every detail of the department or agency handbook.” More often than not, he added, “they will tell you what they want.”

However, Hugler said, there are limits.

“Between Election Day and the inauguration, none of these people are federal employees. They are not part of the federal government, so you really cannot share everything with them," he said. "Usually the touchstone is that if the information would be available under the Freedom of Information Act, you can give it to them.”

“It can be awkward, but I think the good news is that the landing teams have been well-versed in limits of what they can ask for,” he added.

John Palguta, a former colleague of mine at the Partnership for Public Service and longtime federal leader, advises that career executives should be open about existing problems and challenges facing the agency, and not hide the landmines like a major budget problem or workload backlog that might explode once the new administration is in office.

The subjects explored by the transition landing teams can be wide-ranging, including the budget, contract and legal disputes, cybersecurity concerns, the state of the agency’s career workforce, major looming legislative, regulatory and administrative issues, strategic priorities and longer term decisions that need to be made.

Palguta said career executives should present the facts, but avoid being judgmental and telling the transition team members what the new administration must do or automatically nixing their ideas. The goal, he said, is to provide honest, valuable and objective information.

In addition, Palguta said the landing teams represent an incoming administration that won the election, and the eventual political appointees will have the authority to champion the policies of the new president and make changes. Understanding the legitimate objectives of the new team, he said, will allow career executives to plot the best path for getting there.

Hugler agreed, adding it is important for career executives to be good listeners.

“The incoming team has a mandate and things to get done, and if you listen carefully, you will pick up where they are going,” he said. “That will enable you to give the best advice you can give because you actually understand where they are headed.”

In many instances, vacancies in politically appointed leadership jobs will exist for months after the inauguration because of the delays by the president in nominating people and by the Senate in confirming these individuals. This means career leaders will fill the vacuum, ensuring that programs function and services are delivered.

While those serving in an acting capacity will have to keep the trains running, many experienced hands recommend avoiding major decisions that should be reserved for the incoming administration. “I wouldn’t suggest making a huge investment in a new financial system," Hugler said. "That’s probably not a good idea.”

The bottom line is that the career executives and the workforce will still have to do their jobs, fulfill the mission of their agencies and be professional. They also have to be ready for a change in leadership and direction, and will have to work with the new team.

The transition is the first step in this process, and getting off to a constructive start not only will help career leaders build relationships and gain trust that can pay dividends later, but it will help the new administration be ready to govern.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Dec 06, 2016 at 12:54 PM

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