Former OPM directors Janice Lachance and Linda Springer urge present and future political leaders to keep the lines of communication open and appreciate their career staff during the transition in administrations.
Springer was OPM director from 2005 to 2008 and helped with the early stages of the transition as President George W. Bush prepared to leave office. She is now a director and fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration. Lachance began her service at OPM in 1993 and was director from 1997 to 2001. She was part of President Bill Clinton's transition team at the beginning and end of his administration. Both share with The Public Manager some of their thoughts on how leaders and managers can support staff through the upcoming transition.
How would you characterize the role of federal employees during a transition?
JL: The career public servant is the heartbeat of our government. Whether there's a cabinet secretary or an assistant secretary in place, the work continues no matter what is going on at the very highest levels because it's being done by the civil service workforce. I think that is the most important thing to remember in a transition.
No administration can succeed and achieve its goals without the strength and the contribution of the entire civil service, not just the handful of political appointees. There's no doubt in my mind that the civil service and public servants, no matter where they serve, are critical to any transition.
The Office of Personnel Management plays a key role in educating incoming members of the administration on civil service matters and how the federal workplace operates—what's permitted, what's restricted. So, OPM has a very broad mandate. I was part of President Bill Clinton's transition team, and I had a good vantage point to see how the agency operated before I went to work there.
LS: There probably is no time when career civil servants are more needed and depended on for their leadership and institutional knowledge than during a transition. Agency workers need reassurance, and career leaders are in a unique position to provide that stabilizing force.
You were both responsible for the entire civil service, but you also headed an agency with managers and employees. How did you deal with the anxiety your own managers and employees felt, whether you were coming in and introducing yourself or departing and saying goodbye? What advice would you give managers who are seeing their own teams experience such change?
LS: It's important for incoming leaders to have conversations right away to build an ongoing relationship with the career leaders and managers who have tenure and long-standing responsibilities.
When starting a dialogue, it's not only important to build the relationship with trust, but also to become educated on something you may not know. We often have political appointees who have never come into a government setting. It's a different world, and they have a lot to learn. Even if you have worked in government, you may have been in an agency with a different culture and mission. You can really go to school on career leaders' perspective and insight.
Another resource that I think is important but may be overlooked is the appointee's relationship with the Inspector General. It might not be as obvious right away, but IGs have a window to things that you want to know.
From the exiting point of view, I think leaders can benefit from the Chief Human Capital Officers Council. A number of CHCOs are career officials. During my transition, we worked closely with them to make sure they had the time and space to attend to transition issues as well as to their normal duties. We made them available to GSA and others who were helping with the transition efforts.
JL: In one sense, an OPM director has a bit of advantage in this arena because we walk in the door with a strong understanding of and respect for the career civil servant. No doubt, that understanding played a part in the strategy that I took. I wanted to break down barriers between the political team and the career employees, so I immediately made the career members of the SES key figures of my leadership team. That sent a strong signal to the OPM workforce that I understood the contributions of the career staff to the success of the agency and the administration.
It's important to send the right signals. I spent a lot of time in the hallways, walking through offices, meeting people, and having one-on-one conversations. I ate lunch in the cafeteria and chatted with people, making sure that people knew they could approach me with ideas, suggestions, or complaints—whatever was on their minds.
I think the most senior career employees have an obligation to learn about the incoming team: What were the election priorities, and what did the candidates talk about? What issues are likely to be priorities for them? And that's not only at OPM, that's across government.
Also, keep in mind that every agency is going to get a transition team. What can career employees do to help that process along? How can they provide the best possible and most relevant information?
So coming in, I think the keys to a smooth transition are this combination of the very significant conversations that Linda described, along with a commitment to giving the career civil servants a role. Also, it is a two-way street, and I have seen tremendous cooperation and received great help during transition from career staff. I hope that doesn't change.
At the end of an administration, I think OPM can be a great support. People forget what change was like. It was four years ago, sometimes eight years, when they experienced a significant change. There's a lot of anxiety about who is coming in. Are they going to understand what I do? An OPM director can provide a measure of comfort to people who are working very hard every day.
How can leaders reinforce stability during a transition?
JL: You have to lead by example. Maintain a strong connection to your colleagues across government. Don't hunker down with just political appointees or operate at a political level. Instead, constantly remind people of the contributions being made daily by the career staff.
As I worked very closely with other members of President Clinton's cabinet, this was a recurring theme. It was something that I emphasized in every meeting when I was a member of the President's Management Council. People probably became tired of hearing it.
LS: We had similar experiences. Early in the 2008 transition period, the President's Management Council was already operating under some general guidance from people who would become the transition leaders. We worked closely with career officials to communicate how to perform transition tasks effectively. We also worked on establishing a good understanding of the goals and performance requirements for the hand-off of programs and initiatives.
I think people are concerned that the political appointees will take their foot off the gas when they think they're coming to the end of their terms. There could be a sense that "Well, they're going to be leaving, and the career officials who've invested so much are going to be left high and dry." Instead, there needs to be a sense of completion, accomplishment, and recognition.
What are some practical ways to institute that approach?
LS: During the 2008 timeframe, there was a reporting and accountability structure put in place to track where initiatives stood. A lot of attention was put into reporting our progress.
JL: We also tracked everything we had been working on. But we were asked to push the pause button on some things. At some point this election year, a memo will go out from OPM advising agencies to stop hiring certain categories of employees because the government wants the incoming president to have as much of an impact as possible and reflect the choices that the American people have made.
That is a critical time, because it can be very discouraging for someone who's been working on a particular initiative, issue, or regulation. I made a point of spending time with people all the way down the ranks, and not just the head of the project or program, to make sure people understood why these pauses had to happen. When possible, I also communicated that chances were good that the program could be revitalized once the new administration was in place.
Basically, a lot of the work is just explaining the process. It can seem like something mysterious that's in the hands of a very few people. Being more open, entertaining questions, and providing comfort to people who are concerned or discouraged are critical.
It seems like we have a problem in government of losing the institutional knowledge that makes continuity possible. Can you comment on how to manage a transition so you don't add to the exodus?
JL: The way to ensure knowledge transfer is by giving people throughout the agency a seat at the table. Giving them a voice in how the agency is presented to the new administration, ultimately, encourages them to stay on.
People who are eligible for retirement may take this opportunity to move on, because it is a natural break in the action. That's okay, but we have to be sure that there's an exit interview and transition activities that help transfer their knowledge and experience to people who are staying. Very few people just get up and walk out. They give notice, so there's time to plan around it.
LS: Many considerations go into an individual's decision to move on. An administration transition isn't necessarily going to be the driving factor, but it is certainly a point where people may evaluate what's going to come next and whether they want to be part of it. The communication strategy associated with an incoming leadership team or with the transition itself takes on particular importance from that standpoint.
You both talked about how you wanted to present yourself to your career executives and managers and your career staff. Could you talk a little bit about what you expected from them in terms of candor and so forth?
LS: You just said the word that first comes to mind: candor. Being forthcoming, honest, and direct is extremely important.
After creating an open door, my expectation was that people would walk through that door and share their thoughts and ideas. I hoped they would help me work with them so that together we could do the best possible job.
JL: For me, honest communication was important, but I also sought proactive communication. We perform better if we can communicate frequently, and I want to see the best of the career civil service. I want them to show off their expertise, their talent, and their experience. I want to hear about it. I want to hear the history—the full story, the back story. And I want it in a proactive manner.
I would rather people didn't wait to be asked. Career employees have a lot to offer, and I would like them to show off a little bit and be proud of their work, whether it's on the front lines, in customer service, as middle managers, or as members of the SES. I hope every career employee goes into a transition with that in mind.
As former heads of OPM, you have both advised presidents on personnel issues across government. Can you share any advice you've given transition readiness teams and what advice would you give the incoming administration?
LS: I think it's important to not be restricted to one's own political colleagues. It's really helpful when directors can work without regard to party like Janice and I have in exchanging ideas and preparing advice. That broader perspective is valuable.
I also would remind teams dealing with so much detail to not lose sight of the fact that what they are doing couldn't be more important. They need to remember that the ultimate constituency is the men and women of the country that they serve. That can be a compass that will keep them energized and enthused about their work.
JL: Incorporating the career leadership into your personal leadership team would be a tremendous advantage. Learn about the different pockets of expertise and talent and find out whom to go to in particular situations or for particular advice. Get to know who's in your building, get to know who's out in your regional offices, and be ready to tap into that talent whenever you need it. Don't just rely on the people who arrived with you.
Finally, leaders should look at a transition as a time of opportunity to be reflective and think about what's been done, about what's left to be done, and about the potential for the future. I would encourage people to be positive and optimistic and look forward to a new day—no matter who takes office. There are going to be continuing opportunities to do good things for this country. That's the prize we all have to keep our eyes on.