Many of us haven’t been in federal service long enough to live through a change in administration so we sat down with members who have. This interview with Mitsu Asher and Terica Scott offers perspective and advice to help you prepare for the change and make the best of your new situation. It was condensed to fit as a blog post.
- What agency do you currently work for, for how long, and in what capacity?
Mitsu Asher: I work for GSA. This is my seventh year. After a long time in a strategic planning organization, I recently became part of a nationwide analytics team.
Terica Scott: I work for the CDC and I’ve been there since 2007. I’m a communications officer. At the time of the Presidential transition, I was actually still a contractor and we were embedded with CDC.
- What shift in agency or Presidential administration did you live through? What was your role? Did it change at all?
MA: GSA became part of the news after the scandal in Las Vegas. We had a change in agency administration, as well as a change in how the agency was run. There was a reorg as well and a lot of other leaders left, so there’s been a ton of changes in four years. I think that much change has exhausted some and energized some. When change happens, everyone gets uncomfortable, because you don’t know what’s going to happen or where you will land. My office was shut down at the regional level, but fortunately someone decided that what we did should be centralized. It’s interesting the wave of chaos and opportunity that started to create. You really saw the difference between old and new mindsets, which had nothing to do with age. People were really trying to come up with new ways to do things. In my old office and role, we were the change agents in our region, so our role became two-fold: understanding the lay of the land and helping people make the adjustment to all these changes, like through education and communication.
TS: I lived through the shift to the Obama administration. We changed locations. Our roles changed a lot. We’ve had a series of reorganizations over the last eight years. That’s something I’d want to emphasize to people; your work and your projects might change a great deal. Some people’s titles and roles changed, so it’s important to be prepared for that. For the most part, people were okay. There weren’t a lot of morale challenges. It was just a lot to take in. People were a little nervous about what would be coming next.
- What were you expecting? Did those expectations come true?
MA: At that stage of my career, I believed what everyone around me believed. The overall expectation was fear and distrust. We were living our lives and doing the work we wanted to do and here comes someone causing upheaval, not allowing us to do our jobs the way we were used to. Over time, as I started to see parts of the change succeed, my perception of the administration changed. I saw people choosing to make that change permanent, and I started to do the same. It was a feeling of growing up on the job.
TS: I was new to federal service and to my career at CDC, so I didn’t really have any expectations. I’m not sure if having no expectations helped or hurt. It was an opportunity to learn.
- What were the easiest and hardest things about the change in leadership?
MA: The easiest thing was having some stability. In the private sector, big change means you could get laid off. As I saw people panicking around me, I knew that I still had a job. The hardest thing was that the resistance to change was so strong. The distrust of leadership became a distrust of everything, including each other and any new things. Anything that’s not the usual becomes chaos without even trying. “This is just how we’ve always done it,” is one of my least favorite phrases.
TS: The uncertainty, of course, is always challenging. You just never know what to expect or what’s coming next. If you’re young, you might not understand the politics, so you don’t understand how to align yourself or how to have the right attitude. And we lived through it. Not knowing what would happen next was also great in a way. All federal agencies are mission-based, but we’re all really devoted to the mission at CDC, so we didn’t let anything get in the way of that. I thought they handled the transition well, with open communications.
- What do you wish you had done differently, if anything? What could your team, office, and agency have done better to handle the transition?
MA: Sometimes I could’ve done better understanding where everyone else was coming from. Just because I’m being impacted a certain way doesn’t mean that’s how other people are feeling about it. I think across the board everyone could’ve kept an open mind. Some people did and some people didn’t. Change is a constant. It’s the only thing that’s guaranteed.
TS: What I’m doing now is getting involved and helping other people. I’m volunteering on projects and taking chances to get involved in a way that I didn’t last time. Getting organized early and getting staff engaged early are both great practices. Keeping strong leadership throughout is important.
- What advice would you have for someone who’s never been through a change in administration and top-level leadership? How can they best prepare for it?
MA: You can either be swept away by the change or you can find a path in that change. You have to look for that but sometimes you have to lie low and wait for your opportunity. Luckily, I found a path. Getting old is inevitable, and so is a change in administration. The attitude in government seems to be sometimes that a change in administration is just a change in color, that everything will go on as it has. I’ve seen that this isn’t always true. The reality is that we can make things better.
TS: It’s all the same things. Get involved, stay informed, and align yourself with leaders who can guide you on the journey. Look for forums and meetings where you can ask questions. Find workgroups and reach out to them. Ask your supervisor for support to get involved. You can’t go wrong offering innovative ideas and help. That’s a way to empower yourself and also be transformative. Be flexible. Change is inevitable. You have to be prepared for the big change and the aftershocks which will come after that, like a new organization and new policies so you can take advantage of whatever comes.
This interview was conducted by Joseph Maltby.