Columnist

President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama meet after the 2008 election. (Eric Draper/White House via George W. Bush Presidential Library)

In the heat of a bizarre presidential campaign, the horse race makes it easy to forget that the point of politics is governing. And when we think of the next administration, we often focus on who will get the top political appointments.

But to govern effectively, any administration needs to consider civil servants, particularly during the transition, when they will play an enhanced role until new political appointees are in place. Max Stier, president and chief executive of the good-government Partnership for Public Service, calls career federal employees the “vital engine” that keeps government going.

“The reality is the career workforce is the continuous thread across administrations,” he said. “They’re the people who know how it works and how things get done.” Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump should not forget them.

The Presidential Transitions Improvements Act, signed by President Obama in March, recognizes their importance and calls for each agency to appoint a senior career employee to oversee and implement transition activities.

Now, a new report from the Partnership for Public Service and the Deloitte consulting firm focuses on the critical role of career federal employees who run federal agencies from one administration to the next.

“Whether serving on an interim basis for political appointees who have departed before their successors are in place, getting newly appointed political employees up to speed, or maintaining focus and continuing to do high-quality work to advance their agency missions, career civil servants are essential to the transfer of power,” according to the report released Wednesday.

Yet at the same time, a presidential transition is a time of “tremendous uncertainty” for civil servants.

“Anxiety often permeates the workplace, as employees wonder about the identity of their future supervisors, the status of their portfolios, or even the incoming leadership’s commitment to their agency’s mission,” the report added. “This can threaten employee satisfaction and commitment — two vital components of strong employee engagement.”

This week the Senior Executives Association (SEA) plans to release a “Handbook on Presidential Transition for Federal Career Executives to help Senior Executive Service members, particularly new ones, navigate the transition period.

The handbook outlines key transition duties for senior executives, the top level civil servants, including:

  • “Determine specific activities that need to continue during all phases of the transition period and assure they continue effectively without interruption.”
  • “Identify programs, projects, and policy decisions most likely to be affected by the departure of political appointees, arrival of new appointees, and policy changes associated with the winning candidate.”
  • “Determine necessary knowledge to be transferred to new appointees.”

Citing a senior executive who said transitions are really transformations that move from political-appointee distrust of the civil service to great appreciation for career employees, Jason Briefel, interim SEA president, said “the challenge is to minimize the time it takes for that transformation to take place and for the career political team to function well, enabling the administration’s agenda to be met.”

That’s not easy, particularly if there is a change in political parties.

Dan G. Blair, president and chief executive of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), said, “Career employees should be wearing neck braces because they are called upon do a ‘180’ in changing policy and operational direction in times of transition, both presidential and when an agency or department head leaves during an administration and a new leader comes in.”

Like the Partnership for Public Service, NAPA has taken a leadership role in preparing for the transition, along with federal agencies including the Government Services Administration, the Office of Government Ethics, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Defense Department and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Blair, who previously was a top OPM official, said: “Responding to changing political direction is inherent in a career federal employee’s job description. … A fundamental requirement of being part of the career civil service is to respond cooperatively in carrying out the new agenda of a newly elected president.”

But he also said incoming political appointees must work to build a relationship with the career staff.

Communication is key to that, yet the Partnership’s 2015 “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” list indicates communication with employees often is lacking. The quality of communication “may be at risk of declining further during the presidential transition, as many federal agencies might opt to reduce communication with employees during unsure times,” according to the transition report.

It’s a big mistake if political appointees underestimate the importance of career staff who do the work. Candidates can promise big things, but “if they can’t get it done,” Stier said, “it doesn’t make much difference.”

Read more:

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