You can never start a transition too early

Paul Hakimata Photography/

There will be a new president in town next year, and whoever it is, he or she will have their work cut out for them.

Getting set up quickly will be half the battle.

Presidential transitions have often been plagued by delays as a new team unwinds the prior administration's initiatives and political-appointee slots go unfilled for months or years.

The good news: Folks inside and outside government are lining up to help on both fronts.

The General Services Administration, equipped with a $10 million budget, will host transition work out of its Washington, DC headquarters at 1800 F St. NW.

GSA launched a presidential transition directory at the end of November 2015 and, thanks to the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010, the agency will be able to jump in to support nominees immediately after each party's nominating convention.

Another piece of legislation that could help formalize transition processes, the Edward "Ted" Kaufman and Michael Leavitt Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015, passed the Senate in July 2015 but lacks a House counterpart; transition experts couldn't say whether a companion would be introduced in time to make a difference in the coming transition.

But it's the Partnership for Public Service and several other non-government groups are facilitating much of the heavy-lifting prep.

"A presidential transition is basically a massive, epic takeover," said David Eagles, director of presidential transition at the Partnership. "And all your top 4,000 employees all quit."

Preserving valuable knowledge and initiatives from the current administration, as well as speeding up the new administration's appointment timeline, are top priorities.

On the tech side, the Partnership will be working with Accenture to help nominees answer the question, "How technology can effectively enable your campaign promises," Eagles said. "We don't want technology to be an afterthought."

On the people side, the Brookings Institution will join the Partnership to help hash out position descriptions for senior presidential appointments.

A major Partnership goal is doubling the typically low number of presidential appointments that get filled in the few months of a presidency. Eagles noted that Congress usually isn't the problem; it's the paperwork load and presidents' own failure to nominate people quickly that leads to jobs going long-unfilled.

"This period in time [at the very beginning of a new presidency], this is the moment you seize," said Eagles, stressing the importance of boosting both nomination and confirmation numbers.

The trick, he said, is balancing old and new, and the more talented people the new president can have in their jobs as he or she is making big initial decisions, the better.

"Historically, these administrations have come in and said, 'I've been elected, I want it all new,'" Eagles noted. That can be a good thing, as agencies are forced to put zombie projects on the chopping block, but it can also prove counterproductive as healthy projects get axed along with the duds.

Agencies, Eagles added, have been "very inconsistent" in their transition prep work.

But that's kind of par for the course, as transitions have long been poorly managed and documented.

Shortly after each presidential election, Congress publishes "United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions" -- the "Plum Book" -- listing the thousands of positions subject to presidential appointment.

The kicker: Until the 2009 presidential transition, the Plum Book just listed job titles, with no position descriptions at all, recalled John Kamensky, a senior fellow with the IBM Center for The Business of Government.

"It's amazing that some of this stuff didn't exist before," Kamensky said.

Getting jobs filled has also been a mess, Kamensky noted, as presidential appointees had to get security clearances, answer extensive and probing presidential questionnaires and then field different, equally probing sets of slightly different questions from each congressional committee reviewing them.

"Oh my gosh," Kamensky said, in the voice of a foreign observer. "Greatest country in the world, and that's how they do their transitions to power?"

The realization that transitions have historically been haphazard affairs is helping drive the outside investment in the upcoming transition.

GSA's Digital Government & Digital Services Innovation Center Director Gwynne Kostin started a one-year, transition-focused fellowship with the Partnership in October 2015. Kamensky's IBM Center, in a formal relationship with the Partnership, will be hosting monthly transition roundtables with top feds and publishing a document this spring based on the discussions. The National Academy of Public Administration devoted much of its December 2015 fall meeting to transition issues.  And both the Professional Services Council and ACT-IAC are also working on transition planning and support in various capacities.

On Jan. 11, NAPA named six veteran civil servants -- Steve Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis; Sean O’Keefe, former secretary of the Navy and administrator of NASA; Alice Rivlin, former vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors; Donna Shalala, former secretary of Health and Human Services; George Voinovich, former U.S. senator from Ohio, governor of Ohio and mayor of Cleveland; and Paul Volcker, former chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and current chair of the Volcker Alliance -- to head up its "Transition 2016" panels.

All the hubbub is a good sign, in Kamensky's mind.

"People are talking about it earlier," he said, noting that when President George W. Bush was elected, the transition conversation had started in January 2000.  This time around, plans were being laid as early as April 2015.

To help speed appointments and set policy tones, the groups are pushing prep work.

Potential appointees can start the security clearance process ahead of the election, and Kamensky said he hopes congressional committees will standardize their questionnaire formats to ease the paperwork burden on appointees.

"Can the two campaigns agree on common software for receiving resumes?" Kamensky posited as another area for efficiency gains.

All told, the work could lead to hundreds more jobs getting filled in the first months of 2017.

"It could be historic if we do this right," Eagles said.

Outside groups and veteran civil servants will doubtless prove invaluable in the upcoming transition, but the commander-in-chief himself could set the tone in a crucial way.

Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist and longtime guru of all things presidential transition-related, spoke to the importance of personal connections at NAPA's fall meeting.

She noted that when Bush was leaving office, he had a private meeting with the incoming president Barack Obama to personally brief him on a handful of issues -- including Pakistan drone strikes -- for which Bush deemed the communication too critical and sensitive to delegate.

That private meeting helped Obama firmly grasp the seriousness and nuance of the issues, she said.

It was also part of the "remarkable job" Bush did in setting up his successor, Kamensky noted, saying Bush's overall approach – plenty of prep, working closely with the incoming teams, providing government resources to help – was endorsed by the 2010 legislation and would be mandated if the 2015 Senate bill becomes law.

Who exactly Obama would be briefing, of course, remains the open question.


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