Advice for new appointees to consider as they enter the Biden administration

The Pentagon building is seen in Arlington, Virginia, U.S. October 9, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Lists of new appointees to the Biden administration have been coming thick and fast in recent days, and the first of these folks will be starting their new jobs on January 21. They will enter office in unprecedented circumstances: A global pandemic, a worldwide recession, and a profound crisis in American democracy all demand their urgent efforts. They will walk into offices where many staff are COVID-displaced to remote work, and some agencies in which four years of poor leadership led senior career staff to retire and mid-career staff to flee.

Back in 2017, two of my colleagues from the Obama administration — Hady Amr and Scott Lasensky — proffered advice for the mid-level officials taking up roles in a very unusual Trump administration. After the last four years of capricious governance, the incoming Biden transition team made the interesting choice to staff the mid-level — the deputy assistant secretaries and senior advisors — first, since those jobs did not require confirmation in a closely divided Senate. And so, as those newly-minted mid-career appointees step into their jobs for the Biden administration, I want to offer the following unsolicited advice, from someone who served as a deputy assistant secretary of state from 2009 to 2012:

1You may be appointed by the president — but you are taking an oath to the constitution, and you work for the people of these United States. You owe them integrity, honesty, and transparency, as well as your best work. Take your ethics undertakings seriously. Learn the rules and follow them. Don’t ever think they don’t apply to you. And don’t do or write anything you would be ashamed to see in the newspaper the next day (this used to be known as the “Al Kamen rule,” for Kamen’s famous “In the Loop” column at the Washington Post).

2Government is a team sport. Your job is to help your team succeed. That means help your boss, help your peers, and help your employees. If they rise, you rise. If they fail, you have failed. So start by figuring out who they are, what they need, and what you can offer.

Government is a team sport.

3Every workplace has unwritten rules, too: what I call “invisible furniture.” You will be bumping into a lot of it in your first months on the job. Make a point of learning it, and remember that it’s never dumb to admit what you don’t know — it’s the quickest way to learn.

4Your colleagues in the career service are your partners, and you cannot succeed without them. They know how to get things done in the byzantine system of the U.S. government, and beneath their ingrained bureaucratic caution they can offer incredible creativity in solving problems, if you empower them to do so.

Career folks are used to working with appointees of all political stripes, across administrations of both parties. If they seem a little world-weary in the face of your enthusiasm, they are. Connect them to your mission and help them see how their work matters to policy and real-world outcomes. They joined government to make a difference, just like you — and if you can show them that the team you lead has impact, you will earn their enthusiasm and trust.

After the last four years, some career folks may be traumatized by the abuses and corruption of the Trump officials for whom they worked. Don’t expect them to greet you with cheers and dish up their horror stories, though: They are professionals. Be thoughtful as you assess policies you inherit — that was their work, too, because they were there, trying to do their best, in very tough circumstances.

Finally, as you meet your career staff and colleagues, remember: They are exhausted! Between the pandemic and the vagaries of the Trump administration, they have been running a marathon. Remember that your energy level does not by itself restore theirs; and the pandemic-imposed dilemmas of managing inflexible government work and increased family demands have been wearing them down for a year already.

5If you are looking for some insight into what it’s like working to push your policy priorities through the politics and bureaucracy of a presidential administration, I urge you to read More Than Ready, by Cecilia Muñoz. She was an immigration policy advocate for 20 years before joining President Obama’s White House. Her book, written as a guide for women of color, is also a master class in principled, inclusive leadership in government — including some bracing models of what not to do. She names names. Pay attention, and don’t be one of those guys.

6As a public servant, you must be accountable. Congressional oversight and media scrutiny keep government honest and on track. Respect their roles, even if you think they are being unfair. And never, ever lie to them.

7Eliot Cohen, the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and mentor to generations of defense policy experts, is famous for his advice to new political appointees: Have your letter of resignation drafted and in your desk drawer. I agree. If you, sitting at your government-issue desk, ever think you’ve lost your sense of purpose, your integrity, or your awe for the responsibility you hold, turn that letter in.