- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 7, 2001

Eight years ago, as I eyed positions in the new Clinton administration, I was a bit blase about going into government. I had grown up in Washington my father was a lobbyist and I had dealt with federal agencies for years. Looking back, however, it's obvious how much I didn't know. Hence, some bipartisan, practical do's and don't's for this year's incoming class of sub-Cabinet political appointees:
Expect a real learning curve. What would happen to Exxon if it replaced every senior manager in one sweep? That's what the Clinton administration's first year often felt like: Hundreds of people all learning their jobs at the same time. I also discovered that despite 20 years working with the Justice Department from the outside it's very different inside. You may know your field, but you won't know the arcane vocabulary of acronyms (at Justice, for example, knowing OPD and OLA from OLC, OJP, and OJJDP) or the ritualistic procedures seemingly dreamed up by Druids (e.g., the "Exec Sec" operation for "controlled correspondence"). Ask a lot of questions.
Anticipate being hit from all sides with advice. When you arrive, folks in the career ranks will furiously "play" to you. Feds can wait years to pitch a pet project or mess up a colleague. Listen to all comers, but make your own judgments.
Make the feds your allies. When I first came to Justice, I was my agency's only political appointee. Career staff became critical sources of help. Too many new politicals see civil servants as the enemy. But the vast majority of government workers are dedicated and hard-working. Draw them onto your team, and most will deliver. Shut them out, and you can't envision the creative, yet subtle, ways they'll find to undercut you.
Grit your teeth about the federal personnel system. It is everything you've heard (and worse): complex, cumbersome, unwieldy. In the private sector, dissatisfied employees move on. Here, they expect you to make them happy in a new assignment. And you can't get rid of poor performers without unleashing a flood of legal actions. So learn how to send your problem employees "on detail" to other federal agencies. I was blessed with a highly competent administrative officer who drove us adeptly through the civil service labyrinth. Find someone like that and pay him well. (He'll know how.)
Make the system work for you. Government rules and regs are daunting, but I had the benefit of a talented cadre of career senior managers. I liked showing that feds could move as swiftly as the private sector. In one instance, we opened a multimillion-dollar training center only 30 days after the attorney general gave us the assignment. Our Senate oversight chair, a conservative Republican whose state housed the facility, had been skeptical about my agency before then, but from that day, he became a supporter.
Personally master the appropriations process. I had worked the Hill for years. But it was only inside government that I came to understand the full importance of the appropriations process. It has become a primary vehicle for congressional decision-making. Get on top of it and personally connect with key approps committee staff. You will be able to advance your department's agenda and keep your agency and yourself out of harm's way.
Think less partisan, not more. I am a lifelong Democrat, but the challenges of running an agency made me first and foremost a pragmatist. I'm sure I frequently disappointed the Justice Department's "political handlers."
Too bad. When you're managing a $4 billion budget and 900 people, you need nuts-and-bolts plans, not talking points and staged media events. And creating credible relationships with our Republican oversight and appropriations chairs was critical not only to gaining support for important programs, but also to avoid becoming the ball in partisan tennis games.
Take care of yourself. Almost every political appointee I came in with gained weight. Some exhibited signs of ongoing sleep deprivation. Others seemed unable to shake perpetual colds. Long hours, stress, and travel are brutal, and in jobs like these there is always more to do. Pace yourself, but …
Don't dither. The average political appointee lasts 18 months. Government's slow pace is fact, not talk radio fiction. It is easy to get buried in day-to-day management. So be tenacious about advancing your agenda over your whole tenure. This is your "chance of a lifetime" to accomplish something. Never think, "There's always next year." There may not be.

Laurie Robinson served as assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs (OJP) from 1993 to early 2000. OJP is DOJ's criminal justice grants and research arm. During her tenure, its annual budget grew fr

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