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Robert Shea, National Managing Principal for Public Policy at Grant Thornton, discusses what career civil servants can do now to set political appointees up for success

The new political appointees already showing up at agencies will need help from the career people who have worked at those agencies for years. Those career officials will be the difference between success and failure for the Biden Administration’s programs.

Former Associate Director at the Office of Management and Budget Robert Shea joined “Government Matters” Thursday to discuss what careers can do right now and in the coming months to set these political appointees up for success.

Shea told “Government Matters” career employees should prepare to work long hours. “First of all, they should be getting their stamina ready, because … when new political appointees come in to agencies, they’re eager to hit the ground running, and they think that it’s a sprint,” Shea said.

On the other hand, career employees are more likely to approach the work from a marathon mentality. Shea said they can work to temper the sprint mentality of political appointees to some extent but that it’s “a delicate balance.”

“No political appointee wants to be told to slow down,” said Shea. “Likewise, almost the worst thing a career employee can tell a new political appointee is, ‘we’ve tried that before, and it won’t work.’” Instead, careers should explain some of the pitfalls encountered in the past and encourage working together to try to overcome them this time around.

In the longer term, six months or a year from now, ideally there should be a good partnership between the political appointees and career civil servants, said Shea. Of course, it is the job of a civil servant to provide objective advice, “but hopefully you’ve got a set of mutually shared goals that you’re working towards” and a plan in place to accomplish them, he explained.

“I recall a lot of folks trying to give me a wink that they were aligned to my political point of view, and that sort of leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” Shea said. “On the other hand, being objective, providing candid advice, demonstrating your expertise in specific areas, helping the new political appointees overcome some of these challenges that you know will emerge, those things build up trust and dissolve the barriers between political and career federal employees.”

While careers should avoid telling political appointees they’ve tried something before and it didn’t work, it is still important to “provide candid, sometimes tough love advice, without fear of reprisal,” Shea said. He added that the Schedule F executive order from the previous administration would have been a detriment to this, as it sought to remove civil service protections that “give you confidence that those folks are telling it to you straight.”

Shea said it is interesting to see who has been appointed in an acting capacity from the career civil service. “It shows an enormous amount of trust by the Biden Administration in those people who are on the field today,” he stated.

Shea said it will be very important to watch which previous administration officials emerge as senior leaders in the new administration.

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