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Your Election Day Primer for the Presidential Transition

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It's time for agencies to put out the welcome mat for a new administration. It's time for agencies to put out the welcome mat for a new administration.

Last March, when President Obama signed the Edward ‘Ted’ Kaufman and Michael Leavitt Presidential Transitions Improvements Act into law, he set in motion a governmentwide effort to transfer power to a new administration long before today’s election. The transition teams empowered by the law are to help both the outgoing as well as the incoming administrations. What have been their efforts to date, and what can we expect after the election?

The experiences of 9/11 early in the George W. Bush Administration helped frame the urgency for the federal government to formalize its approach to a transition in power between the outgoing and incoming administrations. It became clear the informal processes using for more than two centuries had to be updated and formalized. This started with provisions in the bill that created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, which required designation of interim officials in that department to take the reins immediately after the Inauguration so there would not be any leadership gaps. 

Additional legislation in 2010 extended assistance to the incoming transition teams of candidates prior to the election. And the March 2016 law enshrined several elements that the outgoing Bush administration modeled successfully in 2008, such as tabletop exercises and naming career officials in charge of key bureaus across the government.

According to the recently-created Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service: “A successful presidential transition requires planning and preparation not only on the part of the incoming transition team, but also on the part of the outgoing president and administration.”

The New Transition Law 

At a high level, the new law requires five things:

  • The creation of a White House Transition Coordinating Council six months before the presidential election. The Council is comprised of top political appointees in the outgoing Administration and representatives of the presidential candidates.

  • The designation of a career executive at the General Services Administration as the Federal Transition Coordinator, who coordinates planning across agencies.

  • The creation of an Agency Transition Directors Council, to be comprised of the top career executives from departments and major agencies who have been designated to lead their agencies’ transition efforts.

  • The designation, by each department, of career executives to serve as the interim leaders of major bureaus and offices within their department during the transition period.

  • Memoranda of understanding between the outgoing administration’s political leaders with the incoming transition team, to delineate who has access to what information in which agency, and what help they can expect from the outgoing team.

The White House Role

In May, President Obama signed an executive order that formally kicked off the process, even though some agencies had begun their efforts months earlier. In June, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough convened the White House Transition Council, personally serving as its chair. This council, comprised of a dozen high-level federal officials and representatives of each of the presidential candidates, has met several times, most recently on October 28th to discuss post-election actions. 

By law, this Council provides strategic guidance to agencies and facilitates contacts with representatives of the presidential candidates. It also sponsors tabletop emergency preparedness exercises, once the winning candidate’s team is in place, before the Inauguration.

According to Andrew Mayock, who has been nominated to be the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, the Coordinating Council also takes a more strategic view of the transition.  It goes beyond the mechanics of the transition itself to include discussions on the fiscal year 2018 budget process, national security issues, emergency preparedness, and intelligence briefings. It also ensures transition mechanics, such as background investigations by the FBI and the preparation of the Plum Book are going smoothly.

He also noted that the memoranda of understanding are “ready to be executed” once the election is over.

The Federal Transition Coordinator 

The General Services Administration has designated one of its career executives, Tim Horne, to be the official Federal Transition Coordinator. His “normal” job is to serve as the regional commissioner for the Public Buildings Service in Denver. In 2012, Mr. Horne served as the deputy federal transition coordinator, so he knows the process.

Horne is a member of the White House Transition Coordinating Council, and also co-chairs a cross-agency council of career executives who comprise the Federal Agency Transition Directors Council. In an October interview with Government Executive, he said “’The legislation formally set up my role, which is to help whomever is elected to squeeze every minute out of that 73 days’ between Election Day and the Inauguration.”

The Agency Transition Directors Council

The Agency Transition Directors Council is co-chaired by Mayock and Horne, and comprises 23 federal executives representing the major federal agencies.

According to Mayock, the Council “provides the time and space” to allow agencies to share how they are approaching common activities, such as succession planning and internal communication plans with employees during the transition. In meetings, he observes “a whole lot of sharing” that goes on informally between agencies.

For example, they’ve jointly developed a sample template Table of Contents for briefing books to provide to the incoming transition “landing” teams once the election is over. There was praise for the OMB and GSA roles in bringing them together. One agency representative thought that it was good that agencies were brought in early to help define what goes into these books. There isn’t a single template, but rather a menu of options that the incoming transition team can choose from; and it could be different, for different departments.

To date, the strategy has been to focus on “what” goes into the briefing books so agencies don’t “over collect” or have to do a lot of re-work once the transition landing teams arrive in their agencies. Agency transition leads say they also are focusing on “how” to present the information, e.g., using SharePoint with drill-down links for more details.  They have relied on interactions with the two presidential candidates pre-transition teams for guidance on defining what kind of information the agency landing teams will most likely be interested in seeing.

By law, agencies were to have designated career executives as interim agency leaders by mid-September.  According to Mayock, agencies have defined “critical officers” according to mission needs and they are in place.  He also notes that the President’s Management Council (which he chairs, and which is comprised of each department and major agencies’ chief operating officers) are also actively engaged in ensuring their agencies are prepared for the transition.

In addition to OMB and GSA, other agencies are actively involved.  For example the Office of Personnel Management has issued guidance, according to a story by Federal News Radio, on “seeking work outside the federal government, contacts with lobbyists and post-employment restrictions. It also addresses positions that could be changed from career to political and vice versa, and the role of Senior Executive Service personnel during a transition, such as the requirement for agencies to suspend new SES appointments when the secretary leaves office.” Other agencies, such as the National Archives and Records Administration and the Office of Government Ethics, are also in the forefront of the transition efforts.

Agency-Level Transition Teams 

All agencies are preparing the welcome mat for the president-elect’s incoming team, as well as providing assistance to those leaving government service. Here are several examples:

Department of Homeland Security. Vince Micone is the career executive designated as the department’s point person. Working out of the Office of the Under Secretary for Management, he has developed a charter for the department’s transition office and rules of engagement with the incoming transition team. His office is small; just 4 people and himself, and the plan is to operate it through June 2017, when a critical mass of political appointees will be in place.

Each major Homeland Security component, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has designated senior career executives who are their component’s accountable official, with a supporting GS-14/15 as their action officers.  

They have developed both off-boarding and on-boarding materials for the 170 or so political appointees in the department. For on-boarding new appointees, the plan is to provide them a broad overview of the department’s mission and take them on field trips to see front line activities.

Micone says the department plans a four-part approach to brief incoming appointees. They are not planning on providing a “tower of notebooks.” The approach includes an overview of the department, followed by issue papers on specific topics identified by the department’s career leadership. He says they studied the great work done in 2008 when the department’s transition team prepared in advance to answer the many expected requests for info from the president-elect’s team. In 2008, the department assisted with hundreds of requests from the Obama transition team.

Department of Treasury. Beverly Ortega Babers, who is the principal deputy assistant secretary in the office of the assistant secretary for management, has been designated Treasury’s point person for the transition. She launched the department’s transition office in March.

Treasury has established a steering committee, headed by the chief of staff, which is principally comprised of key political appointees. There is also a transition working group, chaired by Babers, that oversees transition readiness and which has developed a network of points of contact across the departmental offices and bureaus.

The working group has adopted a demand driven, flexible approach. Its materials and briefings are ready, yet it will take its cues from the landing team to ensure the landing team’s needs are met. This approach is evident in Treasury’s written materials, which provide high level overviews of organizations and issues, with about 55 one- to two-page issue papers that the landing team can pull up online. In addition, Treasury will offer a menu of briefings that will be provided based on the landing team’s interests and priorities. The goal is to anticipate potential questions that might be raised so they’ve done the homework getting that information ready in advance.  

The transition working group has also focused on providing individualized outreach and briefings to departing political employees, and helped to shepherd several management improvement initiatives, such as a walk-in customer service center for off-boarding employees.

Department of Veterans Affairs. Dat Tran, principal deputy assistant secretary for departmental enterprise integration, is the internal-facing lead for the department. Bob Snyder, the Department’s chief of staff, is the external-facing lead.

The VA’s Transition Council is comprised of career executives. A parallel staff-level Transition Working Group serves as alternates. Tran says the goal is to quickly establish trust with incoming appointees; this should lead to the credibility needed to rapidly create a joint leadership team.

The new administration will inherit a VA in the midst of transformation, so it hopes to quickly engage new appointees in an update, and revise as necessary a plan of action going forward, such as determine what decisions need to be made in the first 100-120 days of the new administration. To this end, the transition team is developing position papers, papers that describe existing processes (e.g., “what are appropriation restrictions?”), and in-person briefings. Tran thinks this should work smoothly to help appointees quickly become familiarized with VA in 100-120 days.

The Bush-Obama Transition Precedent

President Obama has said he was grateful to President George W. Bush for the well-planned transition in 2008 and that he wants to ensure his successor has the same or better experience. In early March 2016, he instructed his top staff and his Cabinet to start the transition process early. They did, and the president-elect will soon see the results of that massive undertaking. 

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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