Getting it Done: A Guide for Government Executives

Congratulations on your appointment in the new administration. You are taking on more than a job; as you know, it is an opportunity to have an important impact on our society and the world. You are here to deliver on the new administration’s programs, but you are answering to a higher calling as well. The oath you swear upon your appointment is not to the president you serve. The oath is to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” You are part of the administration, but you are part of something greater as well.

This book has been written for those who have answered the call to public service. We deeply appreciate your willingness to work on the nation’s greatest problems.

Those new to government will find a world very different than their previous experience in other sectors. Those returning to government will find a far different government than the one they left. Both will find a large group of stakeholders, including members of the United States Congress, very interested in every action they take. In addition, you will face the challenge of managing large organizations. If cabinet departments were listed in the Fortune 500, they would occupy slots in the top 20.

The goal of this book is to assist political executives, as well as career executives new to their position, in navigating the current political environment and the world of Washington. The waters are likely to be turbulent. If one does successfully succeed in managing in Washington, it will be a very rewarding and fulfilling experience.

Part I contains seven “to-dos” necessary to “get it done” in Washington. Part II consists of 14 chapters, each describing an important stakeholder in the political environment of Washington.

New government leaders have a great opportunity to make a positive difference for the nation. We hope that the 2017 edition to Getting It Done will prove useful in helping them to achieve success.

This photograph of the White house is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.  Photo taken by Cezary p.
Panel 1

Part One: Seven To-Do’s

Part I of our book presents a straightforward to-do list to guide you in your new leadership position:

  • Before confirmation, be careful. There is likely to be a gap in time (sometimes long) between nomination and confirmation. During this time period, learn as much about your agency as possible. In addition, be careful throughout this time period to avoid making commitments or decisions prior to being officially confirmed.
  • Learn how things work. While you have done your background research on your agency prior to your confirmation, devote your early days in office to learning more about your customers, your agency programs, and “flash points” that may cause problems down the road for your agency.
  • Act quickly. As part of learning how your agency works, find out what needs quick action by you and what issues require further study. You will learn much from talking with your staff and stakeholders about how your agency is performing and what actions you need to take quickly.
  • Develop a vision and a focused agenda. A vision and a focused agenda will be crucial to your success in Washington. You will need to both communicate the vision and convey a sense of urgency to get it done.
  • Assemble your leadership team. A key ingredient to your success will be putting together a joint political/career team. Don’t view your staff as two distinct camps (political and career). Avoid “political appointees only” meetings as much as possible. Your job is to get these two groups working together as one management team committed to your vision and your agency’s goals.
  • Deliver results. Once you have created a vision, focused agenda, and a good leadership team, there will be many distractions. Delivering on promises not only will take discipline, but also a set of decision-making and operational processes. Leverage existing processes and networks where possible. Ensure that day-to-day operations are effective, but don’t try to manage them yourself or you’ll quickly lose perspective and your focus on your vision and results. Also, keeping a focus on measurable results makes it easier to make your case with key stakeholders.
  • Manage your environment. All organizations—public and private— have stakeholders and a complex environment, but many observers think that government is harder because there are so many stakeholders.

Part II discusses 14 major stakeholders with whom you will be dealing. The key to your success will be succeeding (to a large extent) with all of them. Failure to work effectively with any one group can likely lessen your chances of success in government and possibly
shorten your tenure.

Panel 2

Part Two: Understanding Stakeholders

Part II of this book provides overviews of the 14 stakeholder groups you will most frequently encounter while in government. We grouped these stakeholders into four clusters: your bosses, your colleagues, your constituencies, and your overseers. While some groups might appear in two categories (Congress is your boss and oversees your organization), this framework is useful to understanding your relationship with each one.

Your bosses

It is often said that one of the major differences between the public and private sectors is that you have many bosses in government. While the assertion that you have 535 bosses in Congress might be slightly overstated, there is much truth to it. In Washington, any one of the 535 members of Congress (or any of their 30,000 staff) can make your life easier by supporting your agency—or more difficult by providing your agency with a directive or a new piece of legislation placing restrictions or limitations on what your agency can do.

Closer to home, however, are three distinct parts of the White House on which your job literally depends. First, there is the White House itself. While you will see the president infrequently, you will often encounter a variety of special assistants to the president, each of whom works in a different White House office. They can be enormously helpful and supportive to you once you develop a good working relationship with them.

Second, we focus on the three White House Policy Councils (the National Security Council, the Domestic Policy Council, and the National Economic Council). These councils have become increasingly important in recent years as the White House has assumed a greater leadership and coordinative role in new policy initiatives.

Last, but by no means least, is the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which coordinates the development of administration policies and decides on how much funding your agency can request from Congress. In addition, OMB will be involved in many other aspects of your position, such as reviewing proposed legislation or your testimony before Congress, as well as overseeing regulations you might propose. As in all organizations, working with your bosses is essential to your success in government.

Your colleagues

While you will constantly be working upward with your bosses, you might not be as aware of the importance of working sideways with your colleagues. In government, you cannot overestimate the importance of your colleagues. There are likely to be few instances in which you and your agency can make a decision solely by yourselves (even after consultation with your bosses). More common is the scenario in which your bosses will actively seek the opinion and concurrence of your colleagues in other agencies across government.

In the chapter on cross-agency collaborators, we recommend that you set the right tone in creating the expectation that your management team will work closely with other departments and agencies. The chapter on interagency councils recommends that you participate actively on interagency councils that invite you to become a member. You must, however, assume a different role in your participation on interagency councils. Instead of being the boss of your organization, you become a peer and colleague working on government-wide issues.

While it has an oversight function, we have placed the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in the colleague grouping. We recommend that you reach out to OPM to help you and your agency seek human capital flexibilities that can assist you in better accomplishing your agency’s mission. While OPM provides specific services to your agency, you can also work with them as colleagues to achieve your mission.

Your constituencies

Each agency will have its own unique set of constituencies. In Part I (Seven “To-Dos”) we note that different constituency groups cluster around your agency. We have not attempted to map the specific groups that will have an interest in your particular agency. Your staff will be able to describe these groups to you, and you will soon be meeting with them to get acquainted and to begin building effective partnership relationships.

Instead, we have focused on a cross-cutting set of constituencies. There are the citizens, with whom you will interact in two ways. First, some citizens will be your customers, and we recommend in Part I that you meet with customers to assess their satisfaction with your agency and whether the delivery of services to them can be improved. Second, citizens are in fact the ultimate bosses of government and indeed have major stakes in the government policies and programs. In our Part II chapter on citizens, we recommend that you use social media and other new tools to engage citizens on new policies or programs you are considering.

Turning to the internal side of your organization, we discuss the importance of unions as a constituency. If your agency is represented by one or more unions, develop a collaborative working relationship with them.

While government executives are becoming increasingly attuned to the importance of collaborating with other federal agencies, the next major challenge is for the federal government to develop more effective working relationships with state, local, and tribal governments. Federal spending will become much tighter in future years. As a consequence, government leaders will need to find new ways to accomplish national objectives through partnerships with states, localities, and nonprofit organizations.

Finally, there are the traditional interest groups and associations. As noted above, you will quickly get to know the organizations interested in your agency. In the chapter on interest groups and associations, we stress the importance of these groups as a valuable information resource for you. There will clearly be differences of opinions between you and these groups. The key to a successful relationship will not be agreement on all issues, but instead your ability to create an ongoing dialogue with them and to maintain a constant exchange of information between you and the organizations.

Your overseers

In addition to looking upward to your bosses and sideways at your colleagues and constituencies, you will also need to look over your shoulder at your overseers. Oversight organizations are a fact of life in government. Ongoing scrutiny of how public funds are spent will become a daily part of your life. While it is all too easy to fall into an adversarial relationship with your overseers, you should work hard to develop an effective working relationship with them.

The most well-known oversight, or watchdog, organization is the Government Accountability Office (GAO), previously known as the General Accounting Office. In the chapter on GAO, we place the emphasis on your using GAO as a valuable information resource. While your staff, including your GAO liaison, will be busy working with GAO on specific GAO reviews underway in your agency, you can use information contained in prior and ongoing GAO studies to identify problem areas that Congress is likely to ask you about and areas that your agency will need to work on.

The second watchdog organization you will encounter is the independent Office of the Inspector General in your department or agency. Past relationships between IGs and agency heads have ranged from outright hostility to a cooperative partnership. Like GAO, IGs can identify problem areas that your agency needs to focus on.

Third, you will encounter the media. The Washington media are unique. You will have an able press staff to assist you in both your proactive and reactive relationships with the media. Like all the stakeholders discussed in Part II, the media can assist you greatly in getting your message out and communicating your vision to those both inside and outside of government. As with all the stakeholders discussed, time spent with the media will be a
good investment.

A Final Word

Simply put, Washington is a tough town. Succeeding in Washington requires not only hard work (which is clearly needed), but also highly sensitive antennae about the environment surrounding your agency. We have not attempted to rank-order the stakeholders discussed in this book. Instead, we have provided groupings as a way for you to organize your approach to each of the stakeholders.

Unlike baseball, where you don’t have to get a hit every time at bat to be a success, government actually does require you to bat 1.000. You must succeed with all 14 of the stakeholder groups described in this book. Any one of them can cause problems for you. Conversely, every one of them can serve as a key leverage point for you to succeed in Washington. The goal of this volume is assisting you in effectively using these levers.


This photograph is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. Photo taken by Sage Ross.
Panel 3

Making Government Work for the American People: A Management Roadmap for the New Administration

During the past year, the Partnership for Public Service and the IBM Center for The Business of Government joined together in sponsoring a series of day-long discussions to inform the next president and the new administration about critical management issues and actions that can strengthen government’s capacity to address the challenges facing our country.

Participants included current and former political and career leaders from the executive and legislative branches, subject-matter experts from the public and private sectors, and representatives from good-government organizations and the academic community. Each of the discussions focused on a key theme: Leadership Talent, Enterprise Government, Driving Innovation, Enhanced Decision-Making and Getting Things Done.

Through these discussions, accompanying reports and related research, we have developed a management roadmap for the next administration. We hope this report will help the new administration successfully transition to power and improve the federal government’s performance throughout the next president’s term.


Our next president will face many formidable challenges, from fighting terrorism and dealing with economic insecurity to curtailing health threats such as the Zika virus,and improving relations between citizens and the law enforcement community.

The American public will expect the president to solve these and numerous other pressing issues. Many will involve promises made during the campaign, while others will stem from new or unexpected problems. The agenda also may include big ideas, just as Dwight Eisenhower launched construction of the interstate highway system and John F. Kennedy boosted the space program that led to the moon landing and so much more.

Whether it’s solving difficult challenges or pressing forward with bold new plans, the difference between success and failure lies in implementation. Presidents and political appointees generally focus on the details of the policies and navigating the legislative process, giving less attention to how the agencies will implement and manage their initiatives. Meaningful change, and results that matter, require both a vision for what is possible and a management roadmap to get there.

Leadership starts at the top

Government is big, complex and fragmented, and navigating this enterprise requires a management roadmap designed to turn the president’s agenda into accomplishment.

The president is uniquely qualified to provide the vision and leadership and hold administration officials accountable for results. This will require a strong commitment from the president and active coordination by the White House, a task that can be driven by the Office of Management and Budget and the President’s Management Council, the organization of departmental deputy secretaries who serve as the chief operating officers within their agencies. But the PMC, chaired by OMB’s deputy director of management, needs to be properly resourced and given a firm, consistent role in the management arena, something that has not always occurred in the past.

As a central federal agency within the Executive Office of the President, OMB combines budget, management and policy and oversight functions. It can play a critical collaborative role by removing barriers and bringing agencies together to promote improved delivery of government services.

Success will start with the appointment of highly capable leaders who have strong management skills and can work together with experienced career government executives—and making sure those leaders are in place early in the president’s term. These leaders in turn need to collaborate with multiple agencies and stakeholders to tackle problems collectively, define clear decision-making processes and find innovative ways to achieve agency missions. In addition, success will require the White House to improve specific functional components of government, including human resources, financial management and acquisition, while creating performance goals tied to strategic priorities and holding leaders accountable.

Integrating the management roadmap into transition planning is critical

To get a head start, policy and management should be integrated in all phases of the presidential transition planning. If our next president expects to turn ideas into action, the transition is where that work begins.

Management also is an area where constructive bipartisan engagement is possible. On a host of issues, from providing quality care to veterans to ensuring the best balance of security and service at airports, there is strong bipartisan agreement about the need for effective government. Congress can be a powerful ally in creating alignment within and across agencies. The transition team and the new administration’s leaders should actively engage Congress in the development and rollout of the president’s management initiatives. Likewise, state and local governments, through which many federal services are actually delivered, need to be included as active partners in devising the management plan.

Recent administrations have taken steps to improve government management and performance, and on the legislative front, Congress has passed laws to reform financial management, make better use of data and focus on cross-agency initiatives. The administration should build on successful initiatives of its predecessors, take fresh ownership of the agenda with new ideas, and elevate the importance of effective management in meeting the needs of the American people.

A presidential management strategy is in many ways as significant as the president’s budget because it is the foundation for policy success and for translating budget priorities into effective results. In this report, we provide a roadmap for creating a robust management roadmap that includes four basic themes:


Use federal senior leadership, including joint teams of political appointees and career executives, to drive the administration’s priorities and manage government operations effectively.


Achieve presidential priorities by managing government in a cross-agency, coordinated fashion versus a set of separate, disconnected agencies with disparate policy priorities, administrative functions and operational processes.


Create, sustain and integrate disciplined and replicable models of innovation by using data and technology to drive better customer service and improve outcomes.


Articulate and implement a defined approach to decision-making within agencies and between agencies and the White House that covers routine decisions, new initiatives and unanticipated events. Use regular evidence-based reviews as a framework for driving decisions, and focus not only on what needs to be done, but even more importantly, on how best to do it.

Creating a management roadmap and making it a priority will be critical to the success of the new administration, especially given the mounting and complex challenges facing our government, the speed with which change is taking place and the need to govern effectively. Both in terms of government operations and political leadership, playing catch-up is always an ineffective strategy.