By Dan Gephart, January 11, 2021
For far too long, the American public has taken for granted the peaceful transfer of power. As a new Administration prepares to take office a week from today, all eyes, even more so than usual, will be on the outgoing and incoming presidents. But the important work for an effective transfer of power has already started – and will continue to take place after President-elect Joseph Biden finishes his oath and releases his hand from a family heirloom Bible.
The transfer involves the close coordination of numerous agencies who are about to welcome thousands of new presidentially appointed employees. The majority of those positions will be filled quickly and without the need for Senate confirmation, and they will be doing the policy and leadership jobs that are critical to mission success. This transition is happening as political bi-partisanship is at its nadir. Oh, and lest we forget (not that we could if we tried) that it’s occurring in the middle of a pandemic.
FELTG understands the challenges and changes that will be impacting your job. We’ve developed several programs that we’ll be presenting over the next few months to help you navigate the transition. The day after the Inauguration (January 21) we’ll be presenting the first of three webinars in our Toolkit for a New Administration: Essential Skills and Knowledge for Federal Supervisors, Managers, and Leaders series. FELTG President Deborah Hopkins will deliver the first 60-minute training Federal Employment Law: The Current Landscape. It’ll be followed by training on Navigating Change Through Effective Management and Communication (January 28) and Effective Performance Under Stress (February 4). Register for one, two, or all three webinars. Keep an eye on the webinar and virtual training pages on FELTG’s website for the latest on our transition-related programming.
Faculty’s Faculty Staff Lounge is filled with instructors who are engaging, smart, and experienced. And for many of our instructors, their experience includes working through more than a few Administrative transitions. Several of these instructors have offered to share their advice and guidance for a series of articles we’re calling Transition Talk.
For this first article in the Transition Talk series, we chat with FELTG Instructor Bob Woods (pictured at left). Bob retired from the Air Force in 1998 after more than 20 years of active duty. His distinguished Federal civilian career came to an end recently when he retired from his position as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (Manpower and Reserve Affairs) for the Department of the Navy last year.
In all of these years as a Fed, Bob has worked with a good number of Presidential appointees. He noted that there are actually four types of Presidential appointments. When it comes to interactions with appointees, “I think it’s important to know what type you’re dealing with,” he said.
DG: Can you explain the difference between the types of appointments?
BW: Yes, they are:
1 – Presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation (aka PAS officials): These officials fill the highest-level positions in any Department or Agency (e.g. the Secretaries, Under Secretaries, Assistant Secretaries and General Counsel, etc.). Typically, these officials are introduced to their Department/Agency roles by their career Principal Deputies (or equivalent), most of whom were either serving as the Acting official or “performing the duties” of the position during the transition period. These roles are governed by the U.S. Vacancies Act, which provides authorities and limitations. In past administrations, Departments/Agencies outgoing PAS leadership direct/orchestrate transition books and orientation briefings/tours for their successors.
Depending on your position in the organization, you may be called upon to prepare some of these materials and to present the same. In my experience, incoming PAS officials often have little/no experience working with Federal employees and often have significant preconceived notions (some positive, some negative). If they have no Federal experience, they will also often be perplexed by our highly regulated work, contracting and ethics rules. If you’re advising or assisting one of these officials, you should remain alert to this and try to explain to the official that Federal employees are (or should be) trained to be apolitical in their work efforts. Assure them that your role is to guide them and support their Administration’s agenda while closely adhering to these myriad rules/regulations. It’s critically important to quickly build trust.
2 – Presidential appointments NOT requiring Senate confirmation: The same observations and advice provided in 1 above applies to transitioning these officials as well.
3 – Non-Career Senior Executive Service (SES). These positions are limited to no more than 10 percent of the total number of SES positions authorized. They can be filled by career SES or non-career SES. A career SES encumbering a non-career position can be displaced by a Presidential appointee and agencies are obligated to work to place these career SES. Many of those appointed to non-career SES have prior Federal government service either as a Senior Executive or other level. These SES appointees should be treated like other new SES and given the support normally accorded to any new SES. Obviously, if they have no prior Federal experience, the advice in #1 above should apply.
4 – Confidential or Policymaking Positions (Schedule C (SC)): Typically, these appointees are appointed into various GS (or equivalent) positions. These positions are often created on an ad hoc basis and may be geared to the qualifications of the individual appointee. These appointees are supposed to be assigned to and supervised by a PAS official, but that may be delegated to a non-career SES reporting to a PAS official. Often, these employees have little or no prior Federal experience and may have no subject-matter expertise for the staff/work unit to which they are appointed. These employees should be welcomed and provided orientation like any new similarly-graded employee. If the employee has little or no subject matter expertise, the supervisor should explain that the employee has been given a great opportunity to learn about the inner-workings of the Department and the specific subject(s) of their assigned work unit.
The supervisor should assess their skills and create a plan to maximize the use of those skills and to provide them with on-the-job training. These employees serve essentially at the pleasure of their PAS supervisor and/or the Head of the Agency but removals and reassignments are typically coordinated/controlled with the White House personnel office.
DG: What is the best advice you have ever given — or would like to have given — to a presidential appointee?
BW: Trust in the expertise of their career SES and non-SES staff and pay close attention to the rules/regulations that we have all learned to live by. Once this advice was given, it was incumbent upon the career staff to prove their expertise and their willingness to support the appointee and his/her agenda moving forward.
DG: What is the most important skill necessary to survive and thrive in a new administration?
BW: Actually, the same skills that help you survive and thrive in any organization. High on the list are communication (including listening skills), interpersonal skills, leadership and time management. Especially in the early months, it’s imperative to be flexible, available, and prompt.
For more guidance, Bob suggests the following:
Bob Woods will present the webinar Why, How, and When to Avoid Whistleblower Reprisal on February 25, 2021. He will also be presenting during the virtual trainings EEOC Law Week and MSPB Law Week, as well as our second annual Emerging Issues in Federal Employment Law virtual conference. If you’re interested in bringing Bob Woods to your agency for training, email Gephart@FELTG.com