As Washington’s departments and agencies bring on new staff at every level, I want to share advice from an FBI director about your job description.
Note, this doesn’t come from James Comey, “the” FBI director, but from Judge William Webster, a previous FBI director.
Webster was a United States Court of Appeals judge in St. Louis. When he moved his chambers from St. Louis to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., he converted his law clerks to special assistants, a peculiar D.C. job whose responsibilities were listed “as needed.”
I joined Webster’s staff in his third year as FBI director. I was a White House fellow, the only non-lawyer in the group, and one of only two women. (Anne Dellinger, wife of Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, was the other.)
Webster later admitted he was determined to have a woman on his staff, and he hired us both thinking one of us would show up. For the record, we both showed up.
Webster’s special assistants had project and liaison responsibilities. When I arrived, the seniority structure (e.g. the pecking order) was well-established. All the high-profile divisions—criminal, foreign counterintelligence, etc.—had liaisons with the director’s office.
The only division without a liaison was fingerprints.
The divisions like criminal and foreign counterintelligence deal with issues the public is familiar with—organized crime and drug cartels.
In the Reagan years, there were 13 divisions. Today, there is a modern organizational structure with 25 divisions and other functions elevated.
In 1981, the fingerprints division managed 95 million files, which took up three floors of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. When a request to match or identify prints came in, highly trained staff (but not agents) conducted a search for the match or analysis.
In 1970, it took three days to handle a request from a local police or sheriff’s department. By 1980, with a flood of new laws and regulations requiring FBI checks, the turnaround time had risen to 33 days.
This resulted in situations where someone would be arrested for a minor violation in one state, but released by the local police before the FBI process discovered the suspect was wanted for a serious crime in another state.
As the number of laws and regulations skyrocketed, the FBI suffered significant personnel cuts under President Jimmy Carter. Webster absorbed the cuts of 750 staff positions in the fingerprints division to protect the agents in the investigative divisions.
The FBI proposed to tackle the situation with automation, which at the time was a state-of-the-art solution. We take technology for granted today, but back then there was a lot of skepticism and resistance.
Lacking knowledge of the FBI and the automation process, I went to Webster to ask exactly what I was supposed to do. What was my job description?
Webster paused and said, “Your job is to tell me things people think I don’t want to hear or that they don’t want me to hear.” Within a few days, I saw what that meant.
Let me make clear, my position was one without power. My only contribution was the ability to represent the director’s priorities to the division and argue for the fingerprints division’s progress in the director’s suite.
But access and reporting responsibilities translated to influence.
If you’re joining the administration, Webster’s charge to me is now your job description. The new administration is pursuing a long list of major changes, and the temptation will be to promulgate directions or orders and think the job is done.
The challenging grunt work will be to assess what is currently going on in the nooks and crannies of the departments and muster the resources to deliver the services the public expects and the reforms our new president demands.
My advice for agency staff: Set up a process and a schedule at the very beginning where you are gathering and reporting on key metrics, interviews, analysis, discussions, and comments from your colleagues in your area of responsibility.
This will provide a structure and a rationale for collecting information and organizing it into ongoing briefings and feedback.
One more time: Your job is to tell the boss what people think he or she doesn’t want to hear, or what they don’t want them to hear. Good luck.