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How to Get Off to a Strong Start: A Guide for the Next President

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Every President wants to get off to a fast start, but success is challenging. It’s akin to launching a startup business while simultaneously conducting the largest corporate takeover in the world.

When the transition is completed and the next President sworn in on Jan. 20, 2017, the new administration will get to work. But what actions should be prioritized? How can the wheels of government be leveraged most effectively?  How can the new team avoid re-inventing the wheel?

To seek answers to these questions, the IBM Center for The Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service co-hosted a roundtable earlier this year to discuss how the next administration can get off to a strong and fast start. The Roundtable brought together current and former senior officials from Administrations of both parties, as well as experts from academia, the private and nonprofit sectors. The robust discussion surfaced a number of practical actions that a new administration can take, starting with the transition, to increase the odds of success.

The meeting was the sixth of seven planned roundtables in our “Management Roadmap” series, part of a multi-pronged Ready to Govern (#Ready2Govern) initiative, through which the IBM Center is supporting efforts to improve the transfer of power and knowledge between administrations. These Roundtables addressed the critical importance of strong leadership (see the report on Executive Talent) the need for agency-specific and governmentwide approaches (read the report on Enterprise Government), and the challenge of decision-making (read the full report) in a time of transition.

From the sixth roundtable came recommendations across three dimensions—people, structure and process. Among the dozens of recommendations were actions for the White House, appointees and career staff.

People

Ensure continuity from the leadership from the transition operation to the Presidential Personnel Office. PPO is critical to getting key staff into place and to helping align appointee priorities and performance measures with key administration priorities. Turnover within PPO leadership can have ripple effects across the President’s entire first term.

Appoint key management leaders in the first wave of appointees. Set an explicit expectation that they will work together as a management team. Into this group, appointees put the heads of the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management, and the General Services Administration as well as the OMB Deputy Director for Management (DDM), the White House chief information officer, and a newly created White House chief operating officer (a recommendation suggested in previous roundtables as well). Attendees noted the eight-month delay in confirming a DDM at the start of the Obama administration, which in turn delayed action on a range of government management and operations initiatives.

Integrate appointees and career leaders. The faster the new administration can build trusted relationships with career staff, the more effective they will be. This can occur in a number of ways—through joint training and orientation; creation of integrated senior leadership teams in agencies and departments; town hall style meetings with SES and career staff within the first 100 days; and through regular joint political and career meetings.

Leverage the senior advisor role to put people into place quickly. Attendees pointed to the key role that Ed DeSeve played as a senior advisor, who had a trusted relationship with Vice President Joe Biden and was put into place to coordinate the implementation of the Recovery Act. While the confirmation process is playing out, senior advisors can help the administration move forward on priorities. 

Structure

Formalize the role of the President’s Management Council. The PMC is comprised of the chief operating officers of the major agencies (typically the deputy secretaries) and it provides enterprisewide leadership on management priorities. Among the first actions of the administration should be the issuance by the President of a directive that reconstitutes the PMC. Such an order could identify positions on the PMC, and expectations for its focus. The Clinton and Bush administrations constituted the PMC via a presidential memorandum to help lead their management initiatives.

Create task forces around key priorities and include career staff. Cross-agency or intra-agency priorities can be more effectively addressed through task forces that bring together functional and policy expertise, and consist of political and career staff.

Establish performance goals in key policy and management areas early. Performance management is important to driving results on administration priorities. The new administration should quickly build on the performance framework led by OMB to move forward with key, measurable goals (the transition team can work on this prior to inauguration). If policy implementation and budget get too far out in front of performance management it can be hard to drive alignment.

Tools

Quickly set up a regulatory review process. New administrations often come in and freeze the process. Attendees noted that the vast majority of regulations that pass through OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs are non-controversial. Freezing all rules can slow down processes that would support a new administration’s priorities. Attendees suggested setting up a triage system to identify which rules to freeze, which to review quickly, and which to allow to move forward, and to use the transition to plan for an effective regulatory review process.

Develop a management agenda early. The new administration can signal its management priorities in the opening days of the administration and should rollout a management plan at the same time as the first budget is released. Delay in releasing a management plan can have detrimental ripple effects across the administration’s term.

Drive alignment around clear goals. Do this through performance management and through written performance plans for appointees, with key elements also reflected in career SES performance plans. PPO, OPM, a new White House COO and Cabinet leaders would all play a role in driving alignment.

Provide agency leaders with a plan for their first six months. Leaders who enter an agency without a roadmap will take longer to get up to speed and have a higher likelihood of a disappointing tenure. Multiple levers can help new leaders implement such a plan, including reaching out to former office holders on a bi-partisan basis, engaging career staff, setting decision making processes, getting out into the field to talk with customers and staff, and much more.

The collective experience of the extraordinary group of people who participated in the roundtable surfaced a wealth of ideas on how the next administration can get a fast start. Acting upon these recommendations can provide a significant and lasting boost to the next administration—regardless of who emerges as the next president.

Dan Chenok is executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Alan Howze, a fellow at the IBM Center, is a senior adviser and project manager for the Management Roadmap initiative.

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