Center Blog

On Being a Deputy Secretary: Surviving Your First Day, Weeks and Year


March 08, 2017

Colleen Rasa, Partnership for Public Service



Advisor on policy issues, side-kick to the secretary, crisis manager, chief integrator, employee engager, chief operating officer. What do all these roles have in common? They fit together to complete the designated role of the deputy secretary.

At its core, deputy secretaries are responsible for ensuring that policies, programs and mission support functions are aligned to achieve an agency’s mission. In some cases, the role may vary based on the individual’s skills, prior experience and preferences of the Cabinet secretary.

As of this week, the Trump administration has nominated only three deputy secretaries and has retained an Obama administration appointee at the Department of Defense. With so many deputy secretary jobs being filled on a temporary basis by acting career executives, the new administration is lacking key officials in the position to help make critical policy and management decisions.

To assist the incoming administration, the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton created a “a checklist for incoming deputy secretaries.” It outlines the best practices and actions that a deputy secretary should consider on day one and in the weeks that follow including tactical, operational and strategic actions needed to hit the ground running.

Beyond the first two weeks, a deputy secretary’s leadership will continue to evolve. Below are 10 practical lessons designed to support a deputy secretary during the first year on the job.

    1. Establish role clarity with your secretary- Understand the administration and your secretary’s vision and priorities for your agency. Seek clarity around your role as the chief operating officer and where policy and operational management duties intersect.

    2. Understand your responsibilities outlined in law- Gain insight on the distinction of the chief operating officer role specified in the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010 and OMB’s Circular A-1113. Determine what you are responsible for and build a team to assist you in meeting your specified responsibilities.

    3. Know your key people- Continually meet with and engage senior career leaders who have significant institutional knowledge of your agency, its key issues, policies and programs that will be crucial to your ability to deliver on the agency’s mission.

    4. ‘Nip it in the bud’ – avoid the front page!- Develop your relationship with your agency’s inspector general to understand any issues relevant to your responsibilities that need to be addressed. This will assist you in effectively getting in front of unforeseen events.

    5. Connect the dots – meet with and learn from your chief officers- Meet regularly with your agency’s chief human capital, IT, finance, procurement and acquisition officers to understand key issues that will affect policy implementation and agency operations. These officers will be key to your success and will be able to flag the immediate and longer term decisions you are expected to make.

    6. Keep the front office in the loop- Meet with your secretary to establish the front office communications structure, meeting cadence, decision-making hierarchy, vision and top objectives for the agency. In turn, build out a similar structure with your direct reports. This will set expectations for the efficient operation of your office from day one.

    7. Go on a listening tour- Be intentional in learning about the agency. Visit your regional and field offices to gain a greater sense of how your agency’s work is being done on the ground floor and what issues may be hindering performance.

    8. Provide federal employees the tools they need to succeed- Gain understanding of the state of employee engagement at your agency and establish employee engagement priorities. Review and request briefings on current and past Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys and other key human capital indicators such as attrition, retention and critical skill gaps to inform your priorities.

    9. Set standards and drive performance- Review Fedstat benchmarking data on issues such as acquisition, financial management, human capital, IT management and real property to understand lessons learned and what steps your agency should take. Understand how you currently are reviewing the performance of mission-support functions and where data benchmarks can be used to enhance existing processes at your agency.

    10. Gather intelligence and build cross agency relationships- Prepare to be an active participant of the President’s Management Council. Through this convening you will gain a greater understanding of government-wide management problems and the administration’s management agenda.


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