People + Strategy Associate Editor Kathleen Ross, Ph.D., Chief People Officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace spoke with Tina Sung, Vice President, Government Transformation at the Partnership for Public Service, where she leads the design, development and implementation of the Ready to Govern initiative to onboard new presidential appointees, about how leadership transitions take place at the highest levels of government after a new president is elected.
Kathleen Ross: Despite the rancor of the 2016 presidential election cycle, you and others have been working behind the scenes to ensure the U.S. tradition of a peaceful transition of power. What are your observations about the process?
Tina Sung: The last election cycle was unique in many ways. However, the transition teams, in collaboration with the Partnership for Public Service, follow established processes of educating those who will help the incoming president, Cabinet appointees, and key stakeholders throughout the federal system. The task is humongous.
The president has to select approximately 4,000 appointees, of which about 1,100 are Senate confirmed. So the selection process is extremely rigorous. The average tenure of an appointee is only 20 to 30 months, so even though a president may serve eight years as the chief executive, there are many turnovers, for example, at the cabinet secretary rank. It would be like a CEO or president of a major corporation coming in, if you were to use the private sector analogy. As talented and remarkable as these executives are, they are coming into a completely unique situation. For those managing large agencies, they have immense program and operational responsibility.
When the whole ready-to-govern initiative began a number of years ago, I interviewed more than 100 different appointees, and they gave me long lists of topics that, if they had known and done in the first six months, would have significantly increased their productivity. Given that the average tenure is about 24 months, you can imagine how important those early months are. For any political appointee coming in, as for any executive in the private sector, it's critical to find out what's unique about that environment and how things actually get done.
The federal space is quite unique. There's no other organization in the world that does it like this, because they are managing three budgets at a time. The federal acquisition process is quite demanding. The ethics and optics mean everything that is done is scrutinized and the news cycle is 24/7. This is a big adjustment for many.
When they come in, they are a team of strangers. The president may appoint the secretary, but the secretary does not necessarily get to appoint his or her deputy or undersecretary. Those appointments are all done based on formulas and calculations, including knowledge and political contributions. Appointees may not get their first choice in assignments. Occasionally, it is not only a team of strangers, but also a team of rivals.
As these appointees enter their new roles, they are surrounded by 7,000 senior executive service (SES) staffers....
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