No Debate: Political Appointees in Federal IT Need Support

The fall’s presidential election will lead to a new crop of political IT appointees, who need help from career employees and vendor partners.

In November, we will elect a new president who will bring new people and priorities to the White House.

While voters may focus on policy and priorities, federal IT professionals focus just as intently on the people. With the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) taking root in 2016, the next president will appoint all Cabinet-level CIOs. The law empowers those appointees to draft bolder policies, making their selection that much more important.

The political process makes the federal government unlike any other sector, a fact that those working alongside federal employees may be reminded of every day, but especially when the time comes to elect a new president. 

Taking a Focused Approach

Political appointees face a tough challenge: They must push forward an administration’s agenda, work with career federal employees and handle criticism from the other side of the aisle, all while managing large agencies built with public dollars.

It’s no wonder the standard operating procedure for appointees typically consists of picking two or three attainable goals, executing to perfection and leveraging that success into their next professional opportunity. While that makes sense from a personal perspective, it doesn’t give government sustained leadership.

LaVerne Council, CIO at the Department of Veterans Affairs, reminded me of that last October. One of the few CIOs who was politically appointed before FITARA takes effect, Council took office last summer and has undertaken a huge IT transformation at the department. She started the project with the knowledge that she was unlikely to see it through to completion.

“With all the pressures of working in government as a political appointee, why not just kick the rock down the road?” Council said at the time. “Because that rock might be a diamond.”

Council has the attitude government needs: For agencies to succeed, political appointees — especially those in information technology — need to think beyond their immediate term. Career employees, along with the vendors that serve government, need to support political appointees however possible. With that approach, federal IT can continue to succeed.

Tom Cockrem/Getty Images
Feb 23 2016