In a little more than a month we will have a new President and, in preparation for his transition, there are plenty of Political Appointees that either have already been selected, or are about to get their letter of congratulations.
As a former employee of the Federal Government in several agencies over 30 years, I can tell you that the anticipation of these new political appointees is similar to waiting for a root canal. The pain seems to get worse as the time approaches. Although I am writing this article so that the new appointees will get a little preparation before going to their new post, I also doubt that many will read the advice since some of them already know EVERYTHING that goes on in the government, even if they have never served a day of federal government employment in their life.
So, as a stage setting measure, let me tell you something about being a Federal Government employee.
First, most employees of the Federal Government are hard-working individuals that feel their employment makes a difference and they do their job with a dedication and loyalty that would bring tears to your eyes. There are some that are lazy and apathetic, but I would dare say that those types exist in every avenue of employment whether they are public or private industry.
Second, most employees of the Federal Government have FORGOTTEN more than you will ever KNOW about how the government process works, especially if you have never been a government employee. They understand the regulations and the different elements of getting the job done, and have done so in spite of these regulations for decades. They know what they are doing and sometimes just acknowledging that knowledge is enough to keep them going for another year or so.
Third, think of the Federal Government employee like a sailor on an aircraft carrier called the USS Government. As any Navy person will tell you, it takes miles to turn an aircraft carrier, and so the analogy fits with the agency that you are about to join. Nothing, and I mean nothing, gets done in a year. Here’s why:
August – Contracting, HR, Budget, Accounting and the rest of the people who make the agency work are getting ready for the new fiscal year. Everybody is trying to spend the money that they were budgeted so that they can “clear the books” for the new fiscal year.
September – Remember August? Well, it is worse now because those departments that are behind in their spending are REALLY spending now just to catch up. It is chaos.
October – New fiscal year and everyone is clearing the decks. The new budget is being vetted and everyone is taking a breath
November – Veterans Day, Thanksgiving is happening this month and people are starting to get ready for the holidays, but work continues given those holidays. It starts to slow in productivity.
December – Productivity is slow, but work still continues. People are starting to get ready for the real big holidays coming up. Christmas happens and people are leaving for the holiday
January – New Years, Martin Luther King Day and productivity is still lower than normal, but slowly ramping up. Snow is lurking on the East Coast and Mid-West, and maybe one or two snow days are in the mix.
February – Presidents’ Day and at least one big snow fall, calling for as much as a week away from work. Productivity is still level but people are cautious about coming in to work on the East Coast, where most of the HQ locations exist.
March – Work in full swing and productivity is up. No government holidays until May.
April – Same/Same. Easter is in there, but the month is stable and the weather is warmer. Full productivity
May – Memorial Day starts the summer vacation season, but for the most part May is productive
June – Summer vacations now that school is out. Projects are complete or nearing completion (from those started two years ago as a minimum).
July – Starting to think about the new fiscal year. Budget and accounting are starting to close out invoices so that the new year can be prepared.
August – “Which brings us back to DOE” (apologies to Sound of Music)
The above example does not mean that the employees do not work for the entire 12 months, but most of them work so hard you want them to take the time to recharge or else they will burn out and, unlike private industry, will just shut down enough to get through your tenure, still remaining in your office. You want to ensure this burn out does not happen. So, from this little example, you can see that there is a rhythm to this whole cycle. As I told someone once, “it is not that you want to step on any toes, you just want to ensure that everyone knows the choreography.” You have to know the dance steps so you won’t be embarrassed. Trust me, you may serve upwards of 8 years, but your tenure can be cut short if you do not play well with others.
I have seen it. I have seen political appointees removed from federal buildings in handcuffs and not in handcuffs. I have seen them packing their boxes and no one saying good-bye to them as they took the exit walk out the front door. You do not want to be one of those – right? Here are some somethings to do (and not to do)
- Get to know the people in your office prior to espousing your philosophy of how things were done in private industry. Federal Government is not private industry (and never will be). There is no profit made here (no matter how hard you try). When I say get to know them, I do not mean the 5 minute “tell me about yourself” horse poop. I am talking about 30 minutes with each one after you review their personnel file so that you can find out about their quality of life priorities. You are in this agency for a few years, they may be here for decades.
- I hate to say it this way – but sit down and shut up. That’s right, no pontificating, no grand speeches, no talk about this is how things are going to go when YOU are in charge. Let your actions speak much louder than your words. If you want to give an entrance speech, say that you want to “learn from your troops.” And THEN DO JUST THAT!
- Get to understand the agency’s process. READ THE AGENCY STRATEGIC PLAN! Know the main points. Understand that every year this plan changes so also understand the frustration that is associated with a “FNG” coming in to the place with THEIR plan rather than the AGENCY plan. Do your homework now so you won’t be in a rut when you first arrive.
- I realize that you had all these perks when you were in private industry, but it is different when you get to the agency. You may not have a driver or a car and may even have to get your own coffee. If you are already doing this – great! If you have not done this, you may want to do this when you first arrive and it will make a great difference in how people see you. You are the leader – lead by example.
- Recognize good work (not just work for you). People that are doing more than their share need that recognition. Freely give it to them, preferably in public.
- Ridicule in public – ever. If you want to isolate your loyalty, then ridicule people in public. If someone is silent in one your meetings and you want them to say something then ask them nicely. “Sue, I would value your opinion on this issue” is much better than “If you have nothing to say, Sue, then maybe you should not come to these meetings.” I have actually been in meetings when the political appointee said things like this to me. I shut up (or never went to another meeting).
- Espouse your philosophy on the first day. Your vision is something that needs revising and revisiting – period. Some of these employees have already had their guidance at the beginning of the fiscal year. You are popping in January (already at the 25% point of the fiscal year), so do not expect that people can turn on a dime. Save it for the Spring and spend the January/February/March time frame giving your employees some time to get used to you.
- Be a “bucket leader.” My father used this term to denote someone who comes in like a person placing their hand in a bucket of water and splashing it around. When they remove their hand, the water will go back the way it was. Unless you set the stage for long-term change, that is exactly what will happen after you leave.
Now, I am saying all this because I am assuming you WANT to make good impression or make long-term change. If you are coming into the agency to build your resume and do not care about the government agency, then I cannot say I am surprised, just disappointed. You will join some others that preceded you. But I have to tell you that I have seen some political appointees that were fantastic, left a great impression, changed the agency for the long term because instead of changing something big, they focused on small changes that helped the overall process without interrupting the routine of individuals in a big way. It is those appointees that made a difference.
Like I said in the beginning, if you just take a few of these points and use them it will make a great difference in your time at the government agency. If this comes off a little strong, I am sorry for being presumptuous, but just thank God that I am a retired government employee and do not have to relive those transitions, and hope that these few words can help you make a very smooth transition. Sometimes they are just like a root canal, but other times they are like a root canal without anesthesia.
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