Hey, appointees, take a bureaucrat to lunch

Ira Hobbs

Now that the president's cabinet has arrived, lower-level appointees are steadily stepping aboard the federal ship and taking charge.

If the past is indeed prologue, many appointees, especially those who have never before worked in the dreaded federal bureaucracy, will drag all sorts of preconceived ideas about career civil servants with them to their new posts.

Not all of those ideas will be constructive.

Among the dreary stereotypes are that bureaucrats fear change and rush out of their offices to join carpools or slug lines at precisely 4 p.m. Well, some do and some don't.

Appointees expect bureaucrats to be, well, bureaucratic. Here's some news: Good people are often effective even in bad systems.

Some appointees, taking these or other wayward notions to heart, will act as if they have been not so much appointed as divinely ordained to tell everyone else what to do. And, just to make sure things are done right, exactly how to do it. These folks tend to treat career civil servants like servants. We're to speak when spoken to, come immediately when called and answer but don't ask questions.

Other appointees will be inclined to isolate themselves, futilely trying to make certain no one finds out what they're up to until it's too late to stop what they have started.

To be perfectly candid, most of the appointees who adopt these management methods will have a hard time finding out what is really happening in their part of the government, much less accomplishing anything significant to write home about.

Having seen the exodus and new-arrival cycle of several presidential transitions, allow me to share a few humble opinions that will help new appointees achieve the success they desire.

First, recognize that career employees are your most valuable resource. Their experiences give them some pretty well-informed notions about what works or doesn't, and they have some ideas about how to make things work better.

I may be preaching to the choir, but the vast majority of civil servants are committed to providing quality, efficient public service. They are capable of setting their personal politics aside; they know their job is to help the new administration.

Moreover, they are willing to work with appointees to achieve those goals unless'again being candid'they perceive their own livelihoods are being jeopardized. After all, no matter how they are portrayed, bureaucrats are human. Still, most civil servants welcome constructive change. The ones laboring long term in bad systems stand to gain the most from improvement.

To appointees, I say, appreciate careerists' dedication and involve them in your deliberative processes. Engage them as colleagues and use the tremendous resource of their collective experience and knowledge to help you make more informed decisions.

Do that, and you're far more likely to achieve the goals you have set, even if they cause some discomfort within the career ranks. Take it to heart, and you can expect a surprisingly rewarding experience in the executive branch of government.

When your gig is up, no matter whether it is one year or eight, you might even find yourself the guest of honor at a reception or two to celebrate your success'soirees planned and paid for by career employees.

Ira Hobbs is deputy chief information officer at the Agriculture Department and a member of the CIO Council.


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