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Federal Diary

Hacks vs. Lazy Bureaucrats, Myths vs. Reality

By Stephen Barr
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page C02

Two Georgetown University scholars, in a new report, suggest that political appointees and career executives can overcome their suspicions of one another if they set aside the myths that swirl through government after presidential elections and agree on some "rules of engagement."

"It is not an exaggeration to say that, perhaps more than anything else, effective governance in the American political system depends critically on whether and how these two groups develop a healthy and productive working relationship," Joseph A. Ferrara and LynnC. Ross write in their report, scheduled for release Monday.

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Political appointees and career employees "must get to know each other, learn to trust each other, and figure out how to communicate clearly with one another," they write.

Finding common ground on which to build trust can be hard, in part because the typical presidential appointee stays in office less than three years. Even when control of the White House does not change hands, the transition to a second term usually leads to substantial turnover in the political ranks.

Ferrara and Ross say inside-the-Beltway myths are based on exceptions, rather than the norm, but endure in the federal workplace because they "tap into strong beliefs that people already hold about the way the world works -- or ought to work."

For instance, political appointees may arrive thinking that career civil servants don't work that hard, are mostly interested in job security and are too ready to say no to new policy ideas -- all myths, according to Ferrara and Ross.

Political appointees are sometimes regarded by the career employees they interact with -- usually members of the Senior Executive Service and other senior federal managers -- as political hacks with an ideological agenda and no interest in hearing information that contradicts that agenda. That is more myth, the two researchers found.

"The stereotypical lazy government worker and the ambitious but unqualified political appointee are more myth than reality," they conclude.

Ferrara and Ross based their report on interviews with current and former political appointees and career executives. Both worked as career employees in the government, Ferrara at the Defense Department and Ross at the Office of Management and Budget.

Their report, "Getting to Know You: Rules of Engagement for Political Appointees and Career Executives," was sponsored by the IBM Center for the Business of Government (www.businessofgovernment.org).

Ferrara and Ross recommend that political appointees engage career staff and listen to their advice, show respect for career employees and pursue a clear and limited set of objectives. Successful appointees are pragmatic and take responsibility for their mistakes, they note.

Career employees, for their part, need to know their job, understand their role, be patient and be aware of "the bigger picture," they suggest.

The authors offer two examples of what happens when appointees don't listen and career employees lose track of their role.

The case of the political appointee involves Thomas A. Scully, the former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who failed to listen to Richard Foster, a career employee and the chief actuary of the Medicare program. Their breakdown in communication, and lack of trust, led to a dispute about whether the Bush administration tried to suppress cost estimates for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

"Suppressing Foster's analyses may have paid some short-term political benefits, but at the longer-term cost of sparking a nasty dispute with Congress and demeaning the role career experts play in bringing forth technical advice to policy makers," Ferrara and Ross write.

Career employees, on the other hand, need to avoid "role confusion." The authors suggest that Teresa C. Chambers, fired last year as the chief of the U.S. Park Police, ran into trouble when she spoke out about budget and staffing issues and "was perceived as moving from the realm of career manager to would-be political executive."

One of the keys to a smooth workplace, Ferrara and Ross suggest, is for appointees and career employees to respect each other and to strive to understand each other.

"Problems arise when one group misunderstands its role, usurps the other's role, or shuts the other out of decision making," they conclude.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com

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