By Paul R. Lawrence and Mark A. Abramson
The start of a new Administration is still months away, but planning for 2017 is already underway. The New York Times recently presented an in-depth article on the forthcoming transition, highlighting a recent transition planning meeting held in New York. Vetting for the the first personnel decision is already underway as both the Washington Post and the New York Times report that the presidential candidates have begun reviewing potential vice presidents.
So is only natural that political donors and campaign workers outside Washington might start to get symptoms of Potomac Fever as they envision the possibility of a presidential appointment. Inside the beltway, it is also natural for veteran “in and outers” to begin thinking about perhaps one more rotation “in.”
A recent article focused on the relatively small number of presidential appointments that are actually available to a new administration (DeSeve and Abramson). If you think you can beat the odds and are interested in an appointment, this article aims to assist in your deliberations as to whether to consider a political appointment. There are clearly many reasons why an individual should be interested and attracted to public service. There are, however, reasons why public service may not be suited to all individuals and there are, indeed, some “downsides” to public service. Both sides of the equation should be considered by those now thinking about an impressive Washington title and big office overlooking the National Mall.
Reasons for Seeking and Accepting an Appointment
Over the past seven years, we conducted interviews with 65 high-level Obama Administration political executives, many of whom we interviewed several times. We were impressed with the reasons that the individuals we interviewed gave in describing why they decided to come (or come back) to Washington. The reason most cited was that the job offered an opportunity to make a difference and they felt they had a unique opportunity to contribute to the organization they were asked to lead.
In many cases, these individuals had previously served in government and were part of the professional community surrounding the agency they were being asked to lead. In the case of John Thompson, Director, U.S. Census Bureau, Department of Commerce, he had previously served at the Census from 1975 to 2002 in senior positions, including leading the 2000 Census. When offered the position of director in 2013, Thompson recalls, “I wanted to see what changes I could bring to the Census. I believed we could save money on the 2020 Census. I felt that the 2020 Census clearly needed a conceptual vision.”
Michael Huerta, Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), had a similar experience. After having served as deputy administrator from June 2010 to December 2011, and acting administrator starting in December 2011, Huerta recalls, “In the spring of 2012, former Secretary Ray LaHood asked me to consider being nominated as administrator. We had a good conversation. I had to talk to my wife about accepting the nomination. I knew that this was an important time for the agency. I viewed it as a ‘call to serve.’”
In addition to meeting the challenges of a specific agency during a specific period of time, there is also the call to public service as cited by Administrator Huerta. Nearly all of the political executives we interviewed strongly endorsed answering the call to service. Margaret Hamburg, former Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, says, “I would encourage people to come into public service….” John Morton, former Director, United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Homeland Security, says, “Public service is very rewarding. You are motivated every day. You are doing right and serving people. I would recommend public service without reservation…”
Reasons for Not Seeking or Accepting an Appointment
Thompson, Huerta, Hamburg, and Morton all believed they were the right person at the right time, and they could each make a contribution to their organization. But it does not always work out that way. Some individuals end up accepting appointments for which they may not be the best fit. Individuals may not be offered their first choice (or even their second or third) and thus face the dilemma of taking a job that might not be a good fit.
While much of the focus is on accepting a position, not enough attention is given to a discussion of why not to seek or accept a position. There are a variety of reasons for not accepting a specific position. In deciding whether to pursue (and ultimately accept) a presidential appointment, an individual must answer the following questions:
- Does my experience prepare me for the job? (The experience fit)
- Is this the “right” job for me? (The job fit)
- Does the job fit my personality and work style? (The personality fit)
- Am I willing to subject myself (and my family) to the scrutiny of the nomination process? (The scrutiny fit)
The experience fit. While people might be unwilling to admit (either prospectively or in hindsight) that their experience does not prepare them for the job they are seeking or have taken, we believe that individuals considering an appointment should ask themselves the following questions:
- What is your experience dealing with the mission of the organization to which you are seeking an appointment?
- What is your relevant management experience?
- Do you have honed and tested management and leadership experiences that will instill confidence in your agency?
- Do you have a plan to be successful in the job?
- Are you prepared if something goes horribly wrong?
- Do you have experience dealing with a crisis that could happen during your tenure?
The decision to accept (or even seek) a presidential appointment is clearly a difficult one involving many professional and personal considerations. In making the decision to seek or accept an appointment, there is one overarching question that each prospective appointee must ask: Is this the right position for me? Determining whether the position is the right fit for oneself is crucial to ultimate success in office. We interviewed political executives who regularly drew on prior experiences to help them do their jobs. Their prior experience put them much further ahead than those who lacked experience. If you are considering a position for which your answers to the previous questions are “no” and you believe you will be able learn it all on the job, be advised that this is a high-risk path.
The job fit. If you do decide that your experience fits the job, the next key question is whether the specific position offered is the “right” job for you. While past and present position appointees often are reluctant to admit that they were appointed to the “wrong” position, there is much anecdotal evidence of people changing jobs to find the right fit. After serving for four years as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), R. Gil Kerlikowske was asked for recommendations to head the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Kerlikowske recalls, “After being asked for recommendations, I volunteered myself to head CBP. I was eager to get back into operations and get away from policy. I was familiar with Southwest border issues.” Kerlikowske had spent his career in law enforcement, including serving as chief of police in Seattle, Washington, prior to accepting the position at ONDCP. He was pleased to be returning to a front-line position.
The personality fit. Some people are not well-suited for bureaucracy (in either the public or private sectors). Bureaucracies move slowly, with many obstacles standing in the way of a specific goal. In reflecting on his government service, Michael Whitaker, Deputy Administrator, FAA, DOT, advises, “For some people, they will find that government does not move fast enough for them. Some people should not come to government if they are not going to like the speed of it.”
You get the idea. While a crisis might speed up the bureaucracy, government requires patience and a long time frame. Quick hits are possible, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Prospective appointees need to understand their temperament and style. There is room for some entrepreneurship in government, but again it is the exception rather than the norm.
The scrutiny fit. Finally, prospective appointees have to decide whether they wish to make their lives an “open book”—both literally and figuratively. An FBI investigation is required for all appointees, as well as intense scrutiny of an individual’s financial situation. All financial forms required by the Office of Government Ethics and congressional committees are made public. In addition, the entire career of an individual being nominated for a position also comes under the microscope. It is now common for controversial statements or incidents from the past to receive renewed attention. In the age of the Internet, it is not very difficult to find past speeches and comments to the press that can be raised in a congressional hearing.
Know What You Are Getting Into
The stakes are high in accepting a presidential appointment. While many appointees leave Washington with their reputations enhanced, there is also the risk of leaving Washington with a damaged reputation. This (usually) occurs not based on personal misbehavior but instead on management failure happening on one’s watch.
We are strong proponents of public service, but we have concluded that an appointee position might not be for everyone. All those interested in seeking an appointment must ask themselves the hard questions we have posed above. If they are comfortable that they are well suited, we wish them the best in their public service.