During my 12 years of service as a Senate-confirmed political appointee in the Department of Defense (DoD), I regularly dealt with what I called my “operating/investment dilemma.” How well you deal with your version of this dilemma may well determine the improvements in government that you will leave behind after your service.
Once in office, you will regularly be confronted with day-to-day operating issues. For me, during my most recent service as Comptroller and Chief Financial Officer at the Defense Department, these issues often revolved around budgets and getting the resources needed by a military at war. The budgetary chaos of recent years, including sequestration and shutdown, added to the volume and urgency of the issues. With these issues came endless internal meetings, many with the Secretary or Deputy Secretary, and a steady stream of memos, speeches, Congressional testimony and briefings, and more.
These budget issues were an important part of my job, and I tried to approach them with enthusiasm and commitment. But I also realized that budget issues would continue after I left my job. Indeed, since I left the DoD Comptroller position in June 2014, my successor has confronted them regularly.
In addition to handling these day-to-day operating issues successfully, I wanted to leave behind some changes that improved the Department of Defense. In other words, I wanted to make an investment that paid lasting dividends. For me in the DoD Comptroller job, that meant focusing on time-phased changes in financial management that would lead to auditable financial statements and installing a course-based certification program to improve training among the 60,000 employees who perform financial management for the Defense Department.
But the day-to-day operating issues have an insidious habit of eating up all of one’s time, even when you are working long hours and weekends. Hence the dilemma: how do you balance time spent on operating issues, which must be resolved, while also making investments that can leave your agency better off in the long run. I offer the following steps to handling this dilemma, approaches that may seem obvious but are easy to overlook – especially during the whirlwind of activities associated with your first few month in office.
It remains to be seen whether my investment initiatives on audit and training will be fully implemented at DoD. But on the day I left my Comptroller/CFO job, I knew that I had at least gotten the Defense Department started toward implementing two initiatives with the potential to create lasting change. That success occurred, in part, because I paid attention to the operating/investment dilemma that confronts most political appointees.
Robert F. Hale is a Booz Allen Fellow and served as Comptroller/Chief Financial Officer in the Department of Defense.