The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Election 2012

November 17, 2012

7 rules for wannabe Cabinet members


5. Don't make promises you don't understand.

Everyone you meet will be eager to get your early endorsement for their pet cause or project. None of these issues is as straightforward as the first sales pitch (or transition briefing) will make them sound. Keep your powder dry until you have all the facts. For the first several months of your tenure, you can get away with promising to "look into" any issue under the sun.

Be careful, though, not to pledge to "review" or "conduct a study" of anything. Such promises will paralyze your agency until these studies or reviews are complete, which usually takes at least six months. People seeking such promises generally have this result in mind.

6. Resist the temptationto reorganize your agency.

When you arrive, you will discover that your agency is a chaotic melange of dysfunctional organizational relationships that defy the most basic principles of good management. Accept this fact and focus your energy elsewhere, because even the most trivial agency reorganization will take forever. Offices that are being rearranged tend to focus on bureaucratic survival and not on their missions.

One cautionary tale, recently reviewed by the Government Accountability Office, is the eight-year-and-counting attempt to realign the Department of Homeland Security's field office structure. The GAO's review recounted two major reorganization efforts, in 2004 and 2010, both of which were substantially abandoned. It was unable to find enough documentation to even evaluate whether the benefits of these reorganizations would have justified the costs. Instead of attempting grand organizational changes, concentrate on getting good people into positions of responsibility.

7. Stay home and mind the store.

You can easily fill up your schedule with all sorts of perfectly traditional activities for a Cabinet officer: site visits, ceremonial meetings, keynote addresses to international conferences of luminaries and the reception of every award imaginable. But these are all seductive alternatives to the hard work of thinking through issues and developing strategic and proactive approaches to them — and to do that, it usually helps if you're in the office. Your paramount task is to lead your agency to distinction. Don't waste time feeding your ego.

Robert M. Simon is the staff director for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. He served as principal deputy director of the Energy Department's office of energy research from 1991 to 1993.

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