Practical Advice for Incoming Political Appointees from Federal Insiders

The authors, who have served as agency representatives and management advisors for many years, offer advice for presidential appointees or Schedule Cs and the career executives who may have to work with them as they settle into their jobs.

This article is co-authored by Robert Dietrich

This article is written for the presidential appointee or Schedule Cs and the career executives who may have to work with them as they settle into their jobs.

We’ve been Agency representatives and management advisors for many years. Like the TV commercial for Farmers Insurance, “we know a thing or two ‘because we’ve seen a thing or two’”.

Government is so big and diverse that no one knows everything, but those of us who’ve been chief negotiators, managers and case/hearing advocates have seen how decisions are made at the top of Agencies, how mistakes can occur, how executives/managers can get themselves into trouble unwittingly, and how a hole, once fallen into, can be hard to get out of.

Anyone coming into an Executive Branch Agency for the first time has a steep learning curve, especially if they come in at or near the top. Just as business, academia, the military, state/local government, and the Legislative Branch have unique and complex rules, so does a Federal Agency. That Agency may adapt to you in some ways but it is likely you’ll be making most of the adaptations.

Whether you are aware or not, the baggage, preconceptions, other places’ rules you bring with you will hamper your effectiveness and ability to adapt to the new environment. Oh, you’ll adapt, but it’s how long it takes and how painful it will be that will frustrate you. And, mistakes can be very costly in terms of financial outlay because an action is overturned, a loss of confidence among your career managers, or a loss of efficiency and effectiveness.

So, what should you consider doing to minimize the transition?

Some of this advice is personal to you and the rest applies to getting the job done. Let’s focus on the personal stuff first.

Personal Liability/Benefits Issues for the Federal Executive

Your first few weeks on the job will be a whirlwind of activity over which you may have less control than you think. There are people who work for you who know things that will be very important to you personally and you cannot afford to put off dealing with them for long. They include the following:

The Agency Ethics Officer

Somewhere in the General or Chief Counsel’s (There’s a difference) office there’s a person designated as the Agency ethics officer. Schedule a one hour briefing from them on ethics as specifically applicable to you. Before you meet you’ll want to ask for and read three documents published by the Office of Government Ethics on its website:

  • The Fourteen General Principles (3 pages)
  • Summary of the Standards of Conduct (32 pages – lots of pictures))
  • Summary of Conflict of Interest Laws (28 pages – about 5 actual pages of text)

Write your questions in the margins. Get a specific answer in writing if you think you need it. At your level, your age and maybe your job history and post Federal life, knowing the effect these will have on you can guide your decision-making. This is critical as every employee in the Agency gets annual required training on ethics. They know the rules and so must you.

Your Personal Employee Benefits

Somewhere in the Human Resources Office, there’s one or more employee relations specialists who advise employees on:

  • Health Insurance (Federal Employee Health Benefits plans)
  • Life Insurance
  • Retirement, including the Thrift Savings Program
  • Leave (if you are covered). Some political executives do not earn leave. Find out.
  • Worker’s compensation (if you are injured or become ill based on the job.)

There are critical things you should know and options you will want to exercise in most of the above. Don’t let somebody who doesn’t know drop forms on your desk or in-basket without a one on one briefing on your choices and their impact.

Travel Credit Cards and Travel Generally

Somewhere on Chief Financial Officer’s staff are people who issue government travel charge cards (GTCCs) and deal with government travel authorization and reimbursement. The card is required for all travel expenses. Never purchase anything personal on the card or use it to withdraw cash from an ATM for personal reasons. There are limits on what the Agency can reimburse regarding travel as well as limits on means of travel e.g., first class flights or personal versus government vehicle. Get a briefing and a briefing sheet on both the card and on traveling from the Agency expert before you sign for the card or travel for the first time.

Does My Agency Require Me To Ever Travel Internationally?

If yes, how do I obtain an “Official” passport noting that I am a government official traveling on behalf of the U.S. Government. Is my position in the national security for which my travel orders and itinerary may be deemed to be classified? Again, depending upon my position, there are certain countries in the world for which I will need to have a black diplomatic passport.

What are the Government procurement regulations to purchase various items to advance the mission?

More than one agency in years past have found themselves on the front page of the Washington Post for excessive spending on conferences or training locations. Optics to Aunt Emma in Kansas, who pays the tax bill, can be very damaging, and may include a trip to the Hill to appear before a committee.

Audits and Briefings

You will need to get a briefing from your Chief Financial Officer as to how has your agency been viewed by the outside auditors on their annual internal controls review under the Certified Financial Officer’s Act. You will also need to know about the Anti-Deficiency Act, and what are the penalties for exceeding your budget authority. Also, your human resources office periodically has an “accountability review” conducted by the Office of Personnel Management. When did your agency last have a review and what were the findings, if any?

Credentials, ID Badges, Access Cards, Government Passport

Depending on the Agency and the item, these are issued by the Human Resources people or the security staff. You will likely have to sign for them.

The only card you’ll need while traveling in the U.S. is a picture ID card with your name and the Agency name on it. Get a briefing and briefing sheet on your need for credentials or a government passport (as opposed to your own).

Also, figure out to what parts of Agency buildings you need unescorted access. If you have a Sam Walton mentality and you want to manage by wandering around, you may want broader access, but the broader the access, the bigger the hassle when systems change either routinely or based on lost cards, breaches, etc.

Getting to Work

We think the following may be helpful as you get into the job.

Government Communications Equipment

Chances are your Agency will want to give you a government cell phone, desk phone, desktop computer, laptop computer, internet access, Agency system access, and an Agency email account, at a minimum. Do I really need to elaborate on the perils of email in the 21st century or how your social media uses might involve an entire rethink as you assume government office?

One Agency Managing Director I know closed his email account and directed his emails to his secretary upon realizing that there was no way to sort through 800 messages a day. He opened another account and only gave the address to a limited number of people. Each Agency has an IT function, sometimes stand alone and sometimes buried in another component. Sit down with whoever runs the IT function and the most senior career executive in the place and discuss a strategy for using all these services.

The Organization Chart

You will spend a fair amount of time on “Who are you?” and “What do you do?”. Study the Agency Organization Chart. You’re going to be trying to figure out who reports directly to you and maybe why they do. Who you must talk to on a regular basis will fill up and complicate your schedule.

In government, a position’s importance is often a function of what meetings the incumbent attends and who’s there. If you want any ability to get things done, you must organize your time ruthlessly.

Dealing with Staff

The Federal government has a culture generally and individual Agencies have subcultures as well. The following may seem gratuitous but are critical:

  • The only physical contact you should have with staff is a handshake. Touch no one anywhere else no matter how you perceive it will be taken.
  • Watch your mouth. Obviously cursing and swearing are out as are any remotely sexual remarks. Spontaneity may be risky with a given audience. Remember your position, who you represent, and the message and image you’re putting forward.
  • Every email you send must be kept in the Agency’s record system as a matter of law. Like diamonds (or more likely coal), they are forever and may be discovered, subpoenaed, or leaked. Jokes, cartoons and the like need more than casual attention about acceptability.
  • Open Door Policies. If you announce an open-door policy, the union will knock regularly as will the employee who just got a removal notice, has been denied a security clearance, or is under investigation for a potential criminal offense. Bet on it. If you agree to meet with someone, always keep in mind that there is at least one other side to a story.
  • Under current law, some meetings with individuals or groups of employees may involve triggering a union statutory right to attend. Get a labor relations status briefing and periodic updates from the staff that deals with the union.
  • Remember that every employee in your Agency must attend annual training for the prevention of sexual harassment and avoiding other perceived hostile workplace environment situations.

Signing Stuff

Find out who in your organization signs things going outside your area of responsibility. Ask for a sample of each. The higher up you are, the more important it is to pay attention to who has Agency signatory authority. If the Authority is yours, it’s yours to delegate or not. Whatever you choose to sign, make sure to get an explanation of drafter’s view of the results that may follow. Whatever you choose to delegate, give clear directions on limits and content for prospective signers.   And, any and all of these delegations to lower level managers will need to be in writing. For certain personnel actions, this is necessary and important.


Find out what specific delegations of authority accrue to your position and get a copy of each such delegation. One example may be official meetings. Find out which ones your predecessor attended and why. There might be a regulation or written delegation requiring your attendance. Also, find out what meetings your staff may be attending in your name and why. Anything someone in the chain below you do is now your responsibility and you will be well served to ask lots of questions about who does what in your name and why that particular position does it.

Don’t forget the other appointees and see they get access to all the above information as applicable. The career staff will generally await your initiative on a matter, not to sandbag you but because you are now the boss whether of the whole place or a component. They don’t know what you don’t know so it’s up to you to ask. If a senior career executive puts all of this together for you with a suggested agenda, don’t consider them presumptive, thank them profusely. Also, note that the offices mentioned above may or may not talk to one another or even think to cooperate on such an effort.

Bob Dietrich and Bob Gilson have written numerous articles for FedSmith. Both continue to provide training and technical assistance in human resources management, labor and employee relations. You can reach them through their respective FedSmith authors’ pages.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.