Veteran executives offer advice on managing a short transition

The shortened presidential transition compounds the challenges that federal managers will face in adjusting to the new administration, according to civil service executives who have weathered transitions before.

Current and former executives, speaking at a forum during the Government Technology Leadership Institute (GTLI) in Washington Tuesday, said the abbreviated transition could mean longer terms for acting heads of agencies and could provoke a sense of urgency in political appointees when they are confirmed.

"Incoming appointees will feel more of a sense of urgency...because of the lost time," said Robert J. Woods, who served at the Department of Transportation during the Reagan-Bush transition and at the Department of Veterans Affairs during the Bush-Clinton transition. Woods contended that the the first 60 days of the new administration are crucial for the completion of changeover activities and for managers to establish good relationships with new appointees.

The fractious political atmosphere could pose hazards to agencies that lack a clear sense of their mission during the transition, the executives said. Ann E. Cohen, who previously served as an attorney in the Justice Department, noted that deadlock on Capitol Hill could embolden agency stakeholders. "[Agencies] should do their best to understand their constituencies and have data together" to justify their operations, she said.

Dennis Fischer, former head of the Federal Technology Service at the General Services Administration, urged agencies to form partnerships with their contractors to deal with the new political environment. "Contractors will try to get papers in front of new appointees, too," said Fischer. "Agencies should embrace the broader community with which they do business to understand their new funding conditions."

The executives offered numerous suggestions for how managers could hit the ground running with incoming appointees despite the shortened transition. Fischer recommended that executives research the background and interests of potential appointees to better gauge what their priorities will be upon taking office. Woods urged managers to actively debunk the negative stereotypes that new appointees might associate with their agencies.

"You've got to be paranoid--think of the most negative stereotypes of your agency and then work to counter them," said Woods. As Director of Information Resources Management at the Department of Transportation in 1989, Woods worked to counter popular stereotypes of information technology workers to win the trust of incoming Secretary Samuel Skinner.

Interagency communication is essential at agencies that operate under acting leadership for long periods of time, according to the transition veterans. Fischer said daily meetings helped keep each branch of GSA abreast of the agency's activities in times when there was noappointed administrator. "We'd bring managers together every morning at 9:00 a.m., if only for a few minutes. Every part of the organization knew everything that was going on," Fischer said.

Despite the challenges that managers face, the executives were unanimous in their recommendation that managers take the initiative in helping incoming appointees adjust to their new government roles. "It is civil servants' obligation to protect the new team; if they do not, it only hurts the agency," said Woods.

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