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Transition Management

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Management is tough in the pressure cooker environment of a presidential transition when a president-elect works frantically to shift gears from campaigning to governing. Even experienced presidents facing a second term can stumble.

Yet failing to find room for management during this time can affect the success of a presidency far more than most people realize. Several critical steps can get the incoming administration off to a solid start.

1. Organize and manage with an effective transition team. Confusion and near-chaos characterize most transitions, seriously handicapping the president-elect in the urgent business of selecting his leadership team, modifying his predecessor's budget and formulating program and policy initiatives. A second-term transition-though clearly less disruptive-can present problems and missed opportunities, too.

Many regard Ronald Reagan's presidential transition as the best organized, largely because it was led by seasoned veterans such as Edwin Meese and Edwin Harper. Their effectiveness came in part because Meese had worked closely with Reagan when Reagan was governor of California. Harper had significant White House experience.

History points to the contrasting mismanaged national security transition between the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Kennedy considered many of Eisenhower's national security processes cumbersome, and abandoned them before instituting more streamlined procedures some months into his presidency. This operational vacuum contributed to the Bay of Pigs fiasco and Kennedy's nuclear standoff with Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis. A well-managed national security transition would have been invaluable when the Cold War was at its peak.

Another management problem often arises when campaign officials without the background to be appointed to government positions are tapped to be transition liaisons with agencies. Despite limited knowledge or experience, they are sorely tempted to deplore the "terrible mess" they find, and perceive recalcitrant "career bureaucrats" as poised to undermine the new president. Many of these campaign members suggest that they could be of great service by "cleaning things up." The reality is they can quickly alienate the career service from the president before he even takes office.

2. Integrate management into planning the new president's program and policy initiatives. The launch of President Nixon's popular federal assistance programs under his New Federalism initiative illustrates the value of involving career executives heavily in the design of a major presidential policy initiative. The career staff in the Budget Bureau's Office of Executive Management initiated, designed and led the most comprehensive effort ever to streamline hundreds of cumbersome programs of federal assistance to state and local governments, in large part through major decentralization measures and greater reliance on decision-making by local communities.

On the other hand, the Clinton administration's ambitious health reform efforts might have gotten greater consideration had the president broadened transition planning to include those design features that were required to make a new health-care system workable.

3. Design and implement presidential reforms that improve government operations. Inexplicably, specific plans for presidential management initiatives often are deferred until after the inauguration. In-depth planning should begin during the campaign so initiatives can be launched quickly after the president takes office to improve the chances for success.

Nixon's New Federalism, which combined policy and management reforms, was a successful presidential initiative to improve government operations. Two months after inauguration, he directed agencies to take the most comprehensive actions ever on intergovernmental management. Agencies were required to submit progress reports on actions taken, not only plans to take action, just six weeks later.

By contrast, the Clinton administration's Reinventing Government initiative took the better part of a year just planning how to proceed. Most lower-level managers were still learning about the plans well into the second year, as was the case recently with the President's Management Agenda under George W. Bush. At a comparable point in Nixon's first term, thousands of communities across the nation already had benefited for nearly a year from several of his streamlining actions that slashed the time and funds involved in seeking approval of federal assistance, brought greater responsiveness to differing needs of individual communities and shifted determination of project details from federal to local authorities.

The next president faces important management challenges, including how much autonomy to give agencies in managing human resources and which staffing requirements should be governmentwide, how to improve the credibility of competitive sourcing and performance awards, and what new interagency and intergovernmental management steps to take to safeguard against terrorism.

One can hope that work is already well under way in the George Bush and John Kerry campaigns on transition planning and the major issues they want to address during their administrations. Whether Kerry will advance his own initiatives or Bush will regroup for a second phase of his management agenda, now is the time to start rather than waiting until Inauguration Day.

 
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