5 Tips for President Obama's Other Appointees

Subcabinet appointments might not start work for some time. Here's what to do now.

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Everyone is understandably focused on the President Obama's highly visible appointments to cabinet positions. Next come the 800 to 900 subcabinet appointments to positions as deputy secretary, under secretary, and assistant secretary. If you are one of these nominees, the period of time between your nomination and confirmation (when you can actually start your job) may be a long one—perhaps several months. Delays due to factors that have nothing to do with either them or their agency are not uncommon. So, what should you do in the meantime?

1. Stay away from your future agency during the confirmation process.

Use your time prior to confirmation to get as much information as you can about your agency and department, your key stakeholders, the principal issues, and how things work. You can meet with people in your new organization, but it is preferable to do so in a different building from the one in which your agency is located. Before confirmation, don't be offended if your agency briefers sometimes hold back information that will be available to you once you are confirmed. They are restricted by law as to what they can share with you until you are confirmed. You cannot make decisions until you have the authority to do so. Prudence is warranted in this period.

2. Learn wh ich people in Congress affect your agency, how they affect it, and their points of view.

It is likely that multiple committees will oversee your agency. Authorization, appropriations, and perhaps multiple oversight committees in both the Senate and the House will be important to you. Your legislative staff will be able to brief you on which committees have jurisdiction over what issues, the views of the majority and the minority sides of each committee, the views of specific members, the topics that are driven by staff concerns, and the issues that are especially important to specific members. Understanding Congress is a full-time job, so you will probably want to make sure you have a good legislative team.

3. Start to build good relations with the Hill, but don't make commitments too soon.

A good relationship with Congress will help you get confirmed and will be critical to your success once you are in your agency. You will be making courtesy calls on members of Congress after you are nominated. Use these meetings to get to know the principals from both parties and their staffs as well. A senator's or representative's staff can be as important as the elected official on many issues. A good relationship will later be valuable in resolving the inevitable conflicts that will arise between the executive and legislative branches. You may find that members of Congress may want you to make commitments for the agency. Be attentive to their requests, but don't make commitments too soon. A "too soon" commitment may often have unforeseen consequences, and it is a good idea to consult with your staff-to-be to understand what those consequences may be. Tell members of Congress you will look into the question and get back to them. Do, however, make sure to get back to them after your confirmation.

4. Limit your endorsement of previous agency positions on issues until you have had time to assess them.

Your staff-to-be will be helping to prepare you for your confirmation hearings. Some may encourage you to embrace the agency's prior policies. Avoid doing this to the extent you can until you have had a chance to understand the issues. Confirmation hearings are about your qualifications for the job. They are not about justifying what the agency has done in the past—notwithstanding the briefing books the agency is giving you that do just that.

5. Start to get to know your agency, but avoid the briefing-book trap.

Your staff-to-be will be preparing briefing materials for you. Usually, these are loose-leaf notebooks that explain the agency and its priorities in exhaustive detail. The details in the book make for excellent reference materials but sometimes are poor guides into the most important or most urgent issues. Follow a focused approach in this time. Your first priority is to get confirmed with as few constraining commitments as possible. Your second priority is to get a head start on understanding the important issues facing your agency. Concentrate on understanding those issues of concern to the Hill, but use that as a path to understanding the agency as a whole. Remember that briefing books are only one source of information for you. You may also want to learn what your departmental inspector general and the Government Accountability Office have said about your agency. GAO may be briefing the Hill, and what it says may come up in your confirmation hearings. So time spent reviewing previous GAO reports on your agency will be time well spent.