Political appointees impressed with civil service, author says

Monday - 4/30/2012, 11:48am EDT

Paul Lawrence, principal at Ernst and Young

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Recent scandals have turned little-known agency leaders like the General Services Administration's former head Martha Johnson and new boss Dan Tangherlini into household names. The headlines have shone a spotlight on the daily challenges of leading far-flung organizations, where the right hand may not know what the left hand is doing.

Paul Lawrence, a principal at Ernst and Young, interviewed two dozen political appointees in the Obama administration over the course of a year and a half. The result is a new book: "Paths to Making a Difference: Leading in Government."

"One of the things we've learned from talking to political appointees is, in the past, how they tended to forgot the tools and techniques they used while they were solving some of the problems," he said. "So, we wanted to get in and talk to them while they were solving problems and find out their approaches and share it with others."

Paul Lawrence, principal, Ernst and Young

Lawrence told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp that he interviewed the political appointees at several points in their federal careers — at six months, one year and 18 months.

"First, they learned that all jobs are not the same," Lawrence said. "That some people are cut out for certain jobs and others were not. So, one of the tricks was to find the right job. The other was their experience really did matter, to the extent that they could rely on relative experience, they were more effective. And the other was just how hard it was to be a political appointee."

In addition, he discovered that across the board all of the political appointees were impressed with the high caliber of the civil servants they dealt with.

"As a result, they were becoming more and more dependent on the career civil service and liking that," Lawrence said. "Civil service, in turn, understands what they need to do and works with them. Probably the big challenge now as we come into an election year is keeping that momentum going, and if the political appointees become distracted, the careerists need to continue pushing the path forward for the agency."

Another thing that Lawrence discovered was that the Obama appointees have stayed longer, on average, in their positions compared to previous administrations, bucking the "out in two" tradition.

"Most of the folks who we interviewed are still there and continuing, and I suspect that they'd like to stay on if that's possible," Lawrence said. "They were very interested in the issues and they felt, now was the time and this was the chance for them really make a difference."