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3 Different Flavors Of Political Appointees

Just like Ben and Jerry’s 170 different flavors of ice cream, political appointees also come in a variety. You have your political types, your regulators, your implementers and your collaborators. So how can the Office of Personnel match the right political appointee to the right job?

Paul Lawrence is a partner at Ernst & Young. He is also the author of What Government Does, How Political Executives Manage. The book presents the findings of a four year study of 42 top political appointees in the Obama Administration. (See part one of our conversation with Lawrence.)

Another key to matching the right person to the right job, is to match the top two people at each agency. Lawrence told Chris Dorobek in part two of our interview that one of the best examples of a perfect match was at the Department of Affairs.

The relationship worked really well at the Dept. of Veterans Affairs between Deputy Secretary Scott Gould and Secretary Eric Shinseki. Why did they blend so well?

“They really did have a good division of labor. Scott described their relationship to us as, ‘He’s mister outside, I am mister inside.” He had management initiatives that he worked on. We talked to him three times over the first two years of the administration, we could see that these three initiatives were things he continued to focus on and work, they were told to us as priorities of the Secretary. Scott told us about the cadence he had with the Secretary even though the Secretary was often away. You could really see the management focus that Scott had,” said Lawrence.

  • Collaborators – Smaller Agencies Have to Team Up?

“We noticed when we talked with folks in these smaller agencies, they spent a lot of time talking about the management challenges of working with other organizations that had similar mission’s or who needed their help to make their mission work. It was an interesting set of management skills that these people brought and experiences. Their ability to understand partnerships. What they did with their day was talking to people, meeting, educating, learning, that’s why we called them collaborators. Their sets of skills were very different than some of the other agency heads,” said Lawrence.

  • Producers – These are political appointees who had a physical output

“The model we had in our mind was of a government factory. Things get produced. This section came to us, because when we talked to folks in this category the way they talked back to us, they talked about outputs and cycle time. They talked about how long it took to get applications processed. How many they had to get done. What their targets were. They spoke the language of the factory back to us. What we observed was the experience of these people, almost a personality type, these would not be the type of people who are really interested in policy. They were hands on. These are people who’s experienced lined up with the jobs really well. What we learned it was hard to imagine them doing policy (even though they were all smart and clever, they wouldn’t like it) if you were less hands on, how would you ever succeed in these jobs?” said Lawrence.

  • Regulators – These are political appointees focus on laws and mandates

“Often the person in charge of the mission to regulate something in a member of the administration’s party and there is three of that and two of the other side. They all describe it as a contentious environment. The folks that understood and knew how to move away from let’s not debate the law and execute the law and get the same group of people who would otherwise not be in the same place work on the management issues,” said Lawrence.

What was the biggest misconception political appointees had before they took the job?

“They were all positively surprised by how strong the careerist were, I don’t think they thought they weren’t strong, but they were surprised at the level of skills in the federal government. Speed was a different kind of speed. The need to engage other people and just understand how different things were in the federal government. Quite frankly, the complexity and the size of government was a surprise. Even being in charge of an agency that is relatively small, the different variations of the mission were so broad. They were interested to learn just how much really goes on in an agency,” said Lawrence.

What surprised you?

“What surprised me was the alignment between how much the alignment between the job and the experiences matter.

  • If you remember the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. There was an agency the Mineral Management Service, the administration always thought of the secretary as someone who understood the leasing and accountings of offshore stuff, so the person they originally found for that was a staffer who had those skills. But nobody could have imagined what would happen, as a result, there was a lot of frustration by the people who were trying to resolve that, but they just had the wrong skills.

What we didn’t hear about so much was the Upper Big Branch Mining Disaster, that was run by Mine Health Safety, he had worked in a union environment and was familiar with mining disasters. He knew the playbook for what would happen. As a result, it was handled as best as it possibly could of. It was there that I really saw the linkage between crisis and how the federal government can execute,” said Lawrence.

In part one, Lawrence told us about political appointee’s trends.

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