Connecting state and local government leaders
A recent report offers new officeholders guidance on how to hit the ground running.
When governors get off on the wrong foot, it can hamper their ambitions for the rest of their time in office. Luckily, there are some straightforward steps state executives can take to make a strong start, according to a new report.
To hit the ground running, incoming governors should take advantage of expertise from career staff and leaders from the outgoing administrations. They should make sure the people they hire will get all of state government behind their initiatives instead of engaging in turf wars. And they should lay out clear processes for making decisions that will set the tone for the rest of their time in office.
Those are among the recommendations from a guide for new governors issued by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and written by columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty, Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene
The report comes as nine new governors have assumed office since the 2022 election. Louisiana will elect a new governor later this year, and challengers will try to unseat incumbents in Kentucky and Mississippi in November as well.
Barrett and Greene encourage new officeholders to view their jobs not just as political leaders, but as organizational managers too. That means paying attention to things like meeting schedules, information technology, personnel management and emergency preparedness.
“Of course, even following this guidance and the details that follow do not guarantee a fully successful transition,” they wrote. “When a state’s leaders value political gain over progress for the citizenry, there is likely no series of steps that can be successfully implemented for the public good.”
The first few months of an administration can be fast and furious, with governors anxious to notch key wins even as they try to fill out their leadership teams.
Barrett and Greene said it’s important for senior appointees to know how state government works. They should receive training about the structure of the agencies, the work culture, applicable laws, and history of management successes and failures. One way to get up to speed quickly, they suggested, is to refer to oversight, audit and evaluation offices that have a good sense of what’s working and what needs work for those agencies.
“There are no magic tricks that guarantee a governor’s appointees will all be successful. But rewarding benefactors, college classmates and people who sport great resumes without evidence of accomplishment—and ignoring a careful selection process […] —invites failure,” the authors warned.
“It’s also particularly important to select appointees who are not only subject matter experts, but who have significant management experience as well as a sensitivity to political considerations important in individual decisions. And, even when the best candidates are selected, they need to be empowered and sufficiently trained to implement the governor’s policies,” they added.
To get the most impact, governors should focus on getting their agency leaders to work together, rather than embarking on efforts to “restructure government”. Getting administrators to work together is “a far more palatable and achievable goal,” Barrett and Greene wrote.
Another area worth concentrating on is to encourage people in state agencies to take risks as they work on the governor’s agenda.
“New governors (and for that matter, all governors) should encourage appointees and career staff to experiment with new processes and programs, and to accept the failure that inevitably accompanies innovative thinking. Successful leaders encourage risk-taking and experimentation. The reaction to failed innovation should be supportive and ameliorative, not punitive,” Barrett and Greene explained.
The authors encouraged incoming executives to treat the initiatives of previous administrations with respect and to work with holdovers from those administrations to ease the transition process. They stressed the importance of preparing to meet expectations and deadlines, whether that means figuring out what campaign promises from the incoming governor agencies can accomplish on their own or making sure the budget comes out on time.
But governors who are assuming office now face a slew of unique circumstances that could complicate transitions even further, from personnel shortages to federal spending deadlines.
With so many tasks to complete, though, it’s easy for governors to overlook the unforeseen events that could shape their legacy.
That’s something former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack told the authors in 2008, before he became the agriculture secretary for the Obama and Biden administrations.
Vilsack attended a conference of the National Governors Association and struck up a conversation with Zell Miller, who had been a Georgia governor in the 1990s. The Iowa governor asked whether he should focus on jobs, education or health.
Vilsack distinctly remembered the answer. He told the story to Barrett and Greene: “Governor Miller said, ‘Son, emergency management. I guarantee you that within six months something is going to happen in your state and if you don’t handle it well, it won’t make any damn difference what you do in health care or jobs or education.’”
Three months later, Vilsack saw the wisdom in the answer, when Iowa was hit with a major tornado.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.