Seven rules for wannabe Cabinet members

Hieronymus for The Washington Post

Robert M. Simon is the staff director for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. He served as principal deputy director of the Energy Department’s office of energy research from 1991 to 1993.

So, would you like to be the secretary of something in the second Obama administration? Political connections are key, but they won’t guarantee you the job or, more important, success once you are sworn in. Here are seven rules to boost your chances of getting to the Cabinet — and then actually accomplishing something.

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1. Keep a low profile until
you are officially picked.

This rule applies especially to activities on your behalf by your friends and would-be supporters. Having your name in every news story about the administration’s transition encourages people to gin up opposition to or support for your selection, much as we have seen as Sen. John F. Kerry has been floated for defense secretary and before that, secretary of state.

Presidents and their staffs want to look like geniuses for thinking of you, not like slaves to the Washington spin cycle. For example, picking Hillary Rodham Clinton for secretary of state in 2008 was widely seen as a bold stroke by President- elect Barack Obama precisely because the news media hadn’t put her on the short list.

You can’t stop the media from speculating about your chances. But don’t encourage it — or imagine that it helps. Your best bet is to emulate Clinton’s response once news of Obama’s offer to her had leaked: “I’m not going to speculate or address anything about the president-elect’s incoming administration. And I’m going to respect his process, and any inquiries should be directed to his transition team.”

2. You will accomplish perhaps three things as a Cabinet officer — decide on them before you seek the job.

If you can’t think of three specific goals that you want to achieve in four years as a Cabinet member, why do you want the job? Having focused goals also helps when your interview with the president turns substantive.

You’ll need allies to achieve those goals; be prepared to provide the president with the names of three people you could hire who would be critical to helping you. The positions that really count are usually at the level of assistant secretaries or deputy assistant secretaries. You have more influence there.

At the beginning of his tenure in 1989, Energy Secretary James Watkins set a goal of cleaning up the nuclear waste accumulated from the Cold War production of atomic weapons — as well as the deficient nuclear-safety culture in the Energy Department that, in his view, helped create the problem. He secured from President George H.W. Bush a free hand to determine who would occupy the department’s top nuclear-related positions. As a result, these jobs were filled with people who were competent, instead of merely politically connected. While Watkins certainly did not solve all of the department’s nuclear problems in four years, he made a lasting impact because he had a team of experts focused on achieving his top goal.

3. Don’t bash your predecessors.

It doesn’t make you look any better, and it won’t make them look any worse. You will be surprised to learn how many friends in Washington even the “worst” Cabinet officer has — all of whom now have a reason to want you to fail.

4. Find ways to interact with members of Congress on a personal level.

Even though the Senate is responsible for confirming your nomination, pay an early call on House leaders. And don’t disappear after your confirmation — find ways to engage members of Congress both in Washington and on their home turf. Work to find common ground with the senior members of the appropriations subcommittees responsible for your agency.

While he wasn’t a Cabinet secretary, one of the most proactive recent appointees was Arun Majumdar, the former head of the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. He found relevant ways to stay in contact with Democratic and Republican lawmakers. He kept them informed about what his program was doing, invited them to speak at major events he organized, and went to their states and districts to appear with them at their meetings.

5. Don’t make promises you
don’t understand.

Everyone you meet will be eager to get your early endorsement for their pet cause or project. None of these issues is as straightforward as the first sales pitch (or transition briefing) will make them sound. Keep your powder dry until you have all the facts. For the first several months of your tenure, you can get away with promising to “look into” any issue under the sun.

Be careful, though, not to pledge to “review” or “conduct a study” of anything. Such promises will paralyze your agency until these studies or reviews are complete, which usually takes at least six months. People seeking such promises generally have this result in mind.

6. Resist the temptation
to reorganize your agency.

When you arrive, you will discover that your agency is a chaotic melange of dysfunctional organizational relationships that defy the most basic principles of good management. Accept this fact and focus your energy elsewhere, because even the most trivial agency reorganization will take forever. Offices that are being rearranged tend to focus on bureaucratic survival and not on their missions.

One cautionary tale, recently reviewed by the Government Accountability Office, is the eight-year-and-counting attempt to realign the Department of Homeland Security’s field office structure. The GAO’s review recounted two major reorganization efforts, in 2004 and 2010, both of which were substantially abandoned. It was unable to find enough documentation to even evaluate whether the benefits of these reorganizations would have justified the costs. Instead of attempting grand organizational changes, concentrate on getting good people into positions of responsibility.

7. Stay home and mind the store.

You can easily fill up your schedule with all sorts of perfectly traditional activities for a Cabinet officer: site visits, ceremonial meetings, keynote addresses to international conferences of luminaries and the reception of every award imaginable. But these are all seductive alternatives to the hard work of thinking through issues and developing strategic and proactive approaches to them — and to do that, it usually helps if you’re in the office. Your paramount task is to lead your agency to distinction. Don’t waste time feeding your ego.

outlook@washpost.com

Robert M. Simon is the staff director for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. He served as principal deputy director of the Energy Department’s office of energy research from 1991 to 1993.

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