Now that President-elect Biden has announced most of his Cabinet nominees the transition team is turning its attention to the all-important sub-cabinet—hundreds of deputy secretaries, agency heads, assistant secretaries and other key positions across the executive branch. In the coming weeks, individuals across the nation will be waiting for the phone to ring with an invitation to join the new administration and many others will be taken by surprise when such a call comes.
Should one accept the appointment or not? The tendency always is to say “yes.” But no one should be too quick with an answer. First, they should weigh the pros and cons of accepting an appointment.
Reasons to Accept an Appointment
There is just one reason to say yes: to serve the nation. During the Obama administration, I had the unique opportunity to interview 65 members of the Obama sub-cabinet. I asked each about their reasons for accepting their position. The answer was nearly unanimous: public service.
Margaret Hamburg, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told me, “I would encourage people to come into public service. You cannot always accomplish everything you want, but you can have an impact. You can gain different perspectives and have an extraordinary experience. You need commitment and a passion for the work.”
John Morton, former director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, echoed Hamburg. He says, “Public service is very rewarding. You are motivated every day. You are doing right and serving people. I would recommend public service without reservation. Individuals should do public service for the right reasons. They have to be motivated to take on an organization and believe in its mission. You have to get it right and come for the right personal reason. You are asking people in the agency to follow you into the trenches.”
Reasons to Decline an Appointment
Hamburg and Morton both believed they were the right person at the right time, and they could make a contribution to their organization. But it does not always work out that way. Some individuals end up accepting appointments for which they may not be the best fit. Individuals may not be offered their first choice (or even their second or third) and thus face the dilemma of taking a job that may not suit them.
Not enough attention is given to why someone should not accept a position but the reasons are many. Every individual should ask themselves (and honestly answer) the following questions:
- Does my experience prepare me for the job? (The experience fit)
- Is this the “right” job for me? (The job fit)
- Does the job fit my personality and work style? (The personality fit)
- Am I willing to subject myself and my family to the scrutiny of the nomination process? (The scrutiny fit)
While many people might be unwilling to admit that their experience does not prepare them for the job they are seeking, individuals considering an appointment should ask themselves the following specific questions:
- What is my experience dealing with the mission of the organization to which I have been invited to serve?
- What is my relevant management experience?
- Do I have the management and leadership experiences that will instill confidence in my agency?
- Do I have a plan to be successful in the job?
- Am I prepared if something goes horribly wrong?
- Do I have experience dealing with a crisis comparable to one that could happen during my tenure?
The decision to accept or even seek a presidential appointment is a difficult one involving many professional and personal considerations. In making the decision to accept an appointment, there is one overarching question that each prospective appointee must ask: Is this the right position for me? Determining whether the position is the right fit is crucial to ultimate success in office. If the answers to the above questions are “no,” candidates should not kid themselves into believing that they will be able learn what they need to learn on the job.
The Job Itself
If one decides that their experience fits the job, the next key question is whether the specific position offered is the “right” job. While appointees often are reluctant to admit that they were appointed to the wrong position, there is much anecdotal evidence of people changing jobs to find the right fit. This is especially true of management people who are placed in policy positions (or vice versa). Gil Kerlikowske recounted his experience after serving for four years as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy when asked for recommendations to head the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection agency: “I volunteered myself to head CBP. I was eager to get back into operations and get away from policy.” Kerlikowske had spent his career in law enforcement, including serving as chief of police in Seattle prior to accepting the position at ONDCP.
Kerlikowske’s experience leads to an important insight: No one should take an operational job without prior experience doing operational work. Those with policy experience often underestimate the different skills needed to perform operational positions. Successful “operations” political executives have deep experience in running organizations that is quickly transferable to managing in the federal government.
Some people are not well-suited for bureaucracy. Bureaucracies move slowly, with many obstacles standing in the way of a specific goal. In reflecting on his government service, Michael Whitaker, former deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, advises, “For some people, they will find that government does not move fast enough for them. Some people should not come to government if they are not going to like the speed of it.”
Nearly all those interviewed commented on the speed (or more accurately, the lack of speed) in government. Heather Higginbottom, former deputy secretary for management and resources at the State Department, said, “I have found that everything takes more time than I had anticipated. Everything here takes a lot more follow-up than what I had been used to … Some of the delays are legitimate, but it has been more time consuming than I thought. The State Department can be a frustrating place, but it is not intentionally frustrating. You just have to wait for lots of things and lots of sign-offs. Everyone needs to be involved.”
You get the idea. While a crisis might speed up the bureaucracy, government requires patience and a long timeframe. Quick hits are possible, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Prospective appointees need to understand their temperament and style. There is room for some entrepreneurship in government, but again it is the exception.
Finally, prospective appointees have to decide whether they wish to make their lives an open book. An FBI investigation is required for all appointees, as well as intense scrutiny of an individual’s financial situation. In addition to the candidate, the candidate’s family might also come under public scrutiny, all of which could play out in the press.
The nominee’s entire career also comes under the microscope. Controversial incidents from the past are likely to receive renewed attention. It is not very difficult to find past speeches and comments that can be raised in a congressional hearing. That’s what happened during the confirmation hearings of former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. When asked to comment on the confirmation process, one interviewee said, “I certainly wish I had written fewer articles over my career.”
Being invited to serve as a political appointee is a high compliment but even those with the best credentials must weigh the decision carefully. Individuals should make sure that they are accepting a position for the right reasons and are indeed qualified for the position offered.