Tips for surviviving your agency’s new political appointees

In late January 2017, when the first of President-elect Donald Trump’s 4,000 political employees report for work, there  already will be plenty of angst built up – both by the appointees and by the career civil servants they will oversee.   Thing are going to be different.

Many of the appointees will bring different policies and different styles. Most importantly, they will represent a new President who openly and frequently spoke with disdain about the federal workforce and ran on a platform of bringing change.

If you’re a senior executive, you want to survive in the new administration and you want your agency to succeed.  But dealing with the arrival of an unknown entity with an unknown agenda can be daunting.

Ira Goldstein, a long-time federal executive and consultant, provided some tools for both sides in this new partnership in his recent book The Federal Management Playbook. He offered some practical advice for federal workers – things that can and must be done.


To begin with, Goldstein wants to put the federal workforce at ease about dealing with Trump’s declarations about “draining the swamp.”

“After 46 years in and around the federal government, I discovered even through there was a lot of publicity around our nation that government doesn’t work well, what you see after a period of time is that many things really do work well. Planes fly safely over our country. Social Security checks get out on time,” Goldstein said in an interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

“Government is important. It’s not going to go away and it’s enormously complex. We’ve got to do better. We need good ‘bureaucrats’ ― skilled, committed, experienced career officials. We also need political direction and oversight, and these days we need competent consultants and contractors.”

As a former U.S. assistant comptroller general and chief operating officer of the Government Accountability Office, and founder of Deloitte’s U.S. Federal Practice, Goldstein has seen many transitions. His Playbook hammers home ways and means of working with the incoming transition team “to achieve the effective and efficient execution of public policies that we want and deserve.”

“It can be to witness the arrival of new high-level people arriving ‘juiced up and ready to transform,’” said Goldstein.

But he reminded federal workers to realize that the new appointees will be arriving into a foreign environment of unfamiliar operating norms and established culture.

“Both sides too often view the other through a stereotyping lens that frequently lacks subjectivity or accuracy,” he said.

The new executives will need the help of the natives in order to survive and thrive, so Goldstein said the smartest thing federal leaders can do it try to befriend the career leaders.

“Use your insights and wisdom to befriend the political team to help them find their way and thereby gain their support for your needs as well,” he explained.

Goldstein tells federal leaders they need to develop their own personal “playbook.”  That begins by asking yourself if you want to be the member of the new team or even continue your job as a civil servant.

Key to continuing with the new administration is checking your attitude.

Goldstein advises federal workers to avoid being defensive.

“Do not believe the agenda is about you or about what you’re trying to do. Take a constructive approach to the changes that are afoot. Casting things in a way that can provide some new ideas can be the key to being accepted, and then people will seek you out,” he said.

Assuming you decide to stay on in the job he offers some guidelines by which to proceed:

  • Understand where the power is by asking who the key stakeholders will be. If you’re at the Social Security Administration, is it still that American Association of Retired People or is there a new group in favor with the new administration?
  • Understand the time frames involved. Operate by the “2, 4, 8 Rule” The new administration comes in at a gallop, not a slow walk. It has two years before term elections to show it can get something done. It has four years to show real progress in advance of the next presidential election. Then by the eighth year, it’s all about the legacy. So frame you’re your proposals in terms of achieving goals with during those periods of time.
  • Know where the resources are. Refine your understanding of the best people, processes and technologies to move forward. Offer to be the “tour guide” to the new appointee.  It makes you a player and ultimately gives you some influence in what they’re going to do.
  • Do everything you can to make the new team successful. Do some research on the appointee(s) and understand what their definition of “success” might look like.  Anticipate the new expectations.
  • Demonstrate your value to the new team. Use your institutional knowledge and show how policies or resources of the previous administration can be re-configured to support new priorities.
  • Have a strategy for how you will “tell the story” of your organization or program. A briefing book will not achieve this. Offer where you see the need for changes and improvements, particularly those which will align with the new priorities.

Being an experienced government worker actually gives you a great opportunity.

“You can reach back and pull together what has worked and you can recognize the similarities between the new administration’s ideas and what’s been tried before,” said Goldstein. “Sometimes, it’s just a matter of renaming old ideas so that it sounds like the new team’s agenda.”

But he warns, “Nobody likes receiving a new solution without knowing it will work better.”

For consultants, Goldstein said everything is about understanding what the client needs to be successful.

“The first step is to understand the agenda of the new client and then do some research and get out in front and understand what the impediments toward achieving that agenda will be, then bring solutions to those impediments even before your client understands what they are,” he said.

  • Planning
  • Doing your research
  • Establishing a playbook for success

That’s Goldstein’s formula for dealing with the coming changes. “It’s all about personal goals and organizational goals. In a transition like this it becomes necessary for us to have a playbook – both for the organization and for yourself – for what you want to achieve,” he added.

Read the latest news about the incoming administration on our Tracking the Transition page.