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The Maze of Transition

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anna Schuh
March 21, 2017

maze Two months into the new administration with a president from the opposing party and the transition is in full force. Transitions are confusing. Transitions that involve party change are very confusing because the parties have different policies. Transitions that bring in large numbers of political appointees without government experience are the most confusing because the ground rules in government are so different from those in the private sector. However, the current transition goes to an even greater level of confusion with a new president who has no experience in government, who is action-oriented, who likes to break with convention and who expects quick responses from his appointees.

The combination of moving quickly and not understanding government restrictions results in a perplexing maze for the new appointees. Still, both the political appointees and the career employees have the same goal — navigate the maze successfully so the new administration can implement its policies effectively. However, two problems impede this goal: the context for each side is different and the two sides have no basis for trusting each other.

As the instructor in the Political Science 101 course highlighted, the first job of an elected official is to get reelected because, without reelection, the official’s policies have little permanence. This is the context of the elected official and explains why the elected official has to demonstrate quick action on the promises made during the campaign. The primary job of a politically appointed official is to quickly and successfully implement the elected official’s policies so the boss will be reelected. Quick, dramatic implementation of campaign promises makes the elected official look good to voters.

The context of the career employee is slow implementation. Slow implementation insures all legal constraints are met. Slow implementation provides the opportunity for early correction. Slow implementation allows stop gostakeholder engagement that is a necessary safety valve in successful policy operation and allows appointed officials to maintain the long-term stakeholder relationships that are necessary for implementing future policies.

The career employee who understands the context differences can then develop strategies to overcome those differences:

  • The first strategy is to remember the political official is in charge. The background of the political official is irrelevant. The office deserves respect.
  • Second, be open to new ideas. Often, someone not steeped in a subject matter area, can see issues overlooked by those who know the subject matter well.
  • Third, be clear about the difference between a professional opinion and a legal interpretation. Not abiding by a professional opinion may create a poor result but it is up to the voters to judge. Not abiding by legal requirements can result in court sanctions to the policy and the policy maker. Only a career employee who is clear about the difference a professional opinion and a legal opinion can persuade someone who knows little about government requirements.
  • Finally, share the professional opinion and then do what the appointed official requests unless the request is illegal, immoral or unethical.

If the request is illegal, immoral or unethical, the career employee has three choices: do it, do not do it, or persuade the appointed official against the action. Unfortunately, the political appointee is likely to mistrust the career employee and persuasion will likely be the most unsuccessful choice initially until the career employee and the appointee build some level of trust.

If the career employee chooses to follow an order that is illegal, immoral or unethical, the employee must be prepared to suffer legal, personal or professional consequences. If the career employee chooses to disobey an order, the employee must be prepared to suffer work place consequences such as performance based actions, reassignment or management lack of trust. Whistleblowing is an action a career employee can use when persuasion does not work. However, whistleblowing is only effective in the presence of a legal violation and requires clear proof. Department of Labor statistics suggest the majority of whistleblower complaints do not have positive outcomes

Early signs have not been good for a bridge between the career employee and the new administration. The State Department lost significant historical memory when the new administration broke with tradition and accepted all the resignations of career ambassadors encumbering political positions temporarily to ease the transition. The administration orders suppressing information dissemination from agencies such as the Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency suggests the secrecy of the Nixon administration with all the problems that secrecy brought. The swift implementation of the administration’s immigration executive order has resulted in a myriad of court suits and protests.


Still, the career employee needs to find a way through the maze of transition for the good of the country. The most effective tool of the career employee is providing honest professional opinions followed by quick implementation of those decisions that are legal. If the effective implementation of bad but legal decisions results in public pushback, perhaps the appointed officials will begin to respect the professional knowledge of the career employee and they both will begin negotiating the transition maze together.

Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program.

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