Center Blog

A Blended Family: Six Tips to Align Career Feds and New Political Appointees

September 21, 2016

Alex Schroeder, Associate, Partnership for Public Service

In addition to political appointees, there are about 2.1 million civilian members of the federal civil service, the men and women whose work for the government spans administrations. A successful transition seeks to blend the incoming political and the professional career staff.

Political appointees are the employees in federal government who are formally appointed by the president, the vice president or agency heads. After every presidential election, there are more than 4,000 new political appointees who will replace the leadership of the outgoing administration. These individuals step into their new roles, often with little knowledge of the internal operating processes of their respective agencies.

Career employees remain in place regardless of who lives in the White House. They are the vast majority of the federal workforce, from entry-level employees to executives who apply and are hired for permanent positions within agencies. Career feds are vital assets during transitions, providing continuity between administrations and carrying out projects and initiatives across presidencies. So how can these two types of feds integrate smoothly and quickly to keep the government running and implement the policies of the new administration? Here are some strategies.

Political Appointees:

  1. Research Agency Priorities: Before the election, incoming leadership needs to gain a clear sense of the strengths, challenges and culture of each organization. Using information from agency review teams, political appointees can highlight where immediate attention is needed on day one.
  2. Connect with Career Staff: Political appointees should reach out to key career staff to tap their knowledge of priority programs, important policies and the office environment. Career employees are perhaps the most valuable resource to incoming political appointees because their longstanding knowledge of the agency’s operations will provide insight in establishing priorities.
  3. Seek Guidance: It is essential for political appointees to seek advice to help transition to their new roles. The Partnership for Public Service offers a number of 90-minute courses and other activities designed to accelerate the ability of appointees to lead and make an impact by deepening their understanding of today’s government and the unique aspects of managing in the federal environment.

Tips for Career Employees:

  1. Prepare for Vacancies: Senior career employees should be identified and prepared to assume the responsibilities of politically appointed leaders who leave during the presidential transitions. Agencies were required to name career officials to fill critical political positions by September 15.
  2. Update Agency Information: Career executives should be creating information sheets documenting key decisions made within the organization and why they were made in order to provide context for incoming appointees. They should keep their agency websites and other publicly available information as up-to-date as possible so that the new administration can prepare political appointees appropriately. It is key to make all information digestible for incoming leaders by presenting data that is laid out easy to read documents.
  3. Be Transparent with Staff: Career leaders at agencies should clearly communicate with their staff about the transition and how it might affect the organization. A recent Partnership publication shows that communicating regularly with employees throughout the transition can help reduce anxiety, prevent rumors from spreading, keep employees focused on their work and ensure that agencies are prepared to accept the incoming administration’s teams.

When all else fails, career and political appointees should use common and find ways to work together to fulfill the mission of their agencies. Remember that behind each title is a real person. Both sides should dedicate time to getting to one another and understand how they best like to communicate and lead.


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