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The Federal Coach
Posted at 12:58 PM ET, 01/17/2012

How to lead a federal agency during an election year

Experienced Washingtonians know that politics can get in the way of governing, and that is especially true during presidential election years.

Leaders and front-line federal employees frequently respond to the political whirlwind by climbing into the proverbial bunker, keeping their heads down and waiting until the dust settles before returning to normal operations.

That approach may be tempting, but I want to share some advice from former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and others about how to deal with the political sound and fury, maintain effective government operations and avoid negative fallout. Some of this advice applies to top-rung officials at agencies, but many of the suggestions are applicable down the leadership line.

· Remember – employees are your most important relationship: It’s the front-line federal employees who get the job done, and it’s vital that leaders at all levels keep them free from the political distractions. Stay focused on accomplishing your team’s mission and goals. Spend a little more time with your employees. Team meetings, informal conversations in the hallways and other personal interactions present opportunities to show that you’re focused on having your agency do its work more than on the political news of the day.

· Watch out for asteroids, don’t let anyone be surprised: In talking with your closest colleagues, regularly scan the environment for any asteroids that could veer in your direction. In a highly charged political climate, it’s all the more important that you stay alert to issues that may grab a headline. As soon as you zero-in on any immediate risks that will prevent your agency from achieving its mission and goals, make certain to pick up the phone to alert your leaders. No one likes the surprise of bad news.

· Communicate: Your public affairs office and other colleagues who deal with public inquiries and the media are an important part of the team. How you communicate can be very valuable in making sure that the public and the press understand what your agency is doing, what challenges you face and what results you’re producing. The information provided should be timely and accurate.

· If bad news breaks, face the music: It may be tempting to hide from bad news – no one wants to run the risk of being a political tennis ball, swatted back and forth – but the longer you let a story go, the more likely it is to affect employees and your agency’s performance. Take responsibility for any problems within your domain and then work internally to resolve the issues. It’s easier said than done, that’s for certain, but federal leaders distinguish themselves by showing their mettle during difficult times. 

· It is okay to push back on occasion: If you’re asked to do something that you think is inappropriate or that just doesn’t make sense, it is okay to take a stand. You might ask for clarification or additional information, or simply register your reservations and the reasons for it. If the issue centers on a policy disagreement and what you are being asked to do is neither illegal nor unethical, you may need to do what’s being asked anyway. However, you could also find that you have the ability to change what’s being proposed or directed. 

There are numerous other circumstances that can cause discomfort during the presidential election season, but in the end, it is best to keep focused on performing your job well and doing what you know is right. You can’t always avoid problems, but you can deal with them squarely and above-board. If you have any election-year tales, please share them by commenting below or by sending me an email at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

As noted last week, I am planning a new feature for this column – the FedCoach Kudos – in which I will highlight a best practice, innovation or even a promising practice leading to improved government performance and results. Please also contact me with any great stories so they can be shared with the government community.

Government leaders, nominate your outstanding federal employees for the 11th annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal (Sammies). Nominations are accepted at servicetoamericamedals.org through January 18, 2012.

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More from On Leadership:

How to become a great federal leader

Rocking the boat in federal agencies

By  |  12:58 PM ET, 01/17/2012

 
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