Transition observers anticipate a bottom-up approach to agency reviews

Federal employees could see some familiar faces walking the halls of their agencies soon.

On Friday, the transition team for President-elect Barack Obama released a more extensive list of agency review team leaders to conduct detailed examinations of government agencies, departments, commissions and the White House. The teams include many well-known and experienced government hands.

Elaine Kaplan, former head of the Office of Special Counsel, was selected to examine the policies, budget and personnel decisions at her previous employer. Ditto for Amy Comstock Rick, former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics from 1999 through 2003. Jane Garvey, who served as administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration during the Clinton administration, will review operations at the Transportation Department, FAA's parent agency.

The experience of team leaders inside their particular agencies could be an asset that allows them to hit the ground running, said Mark Roth, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees.

In previous transitions, some review teams approached their tasks as management audits, conducting top-down examinations and learning virtually from scratch about agency operations, Roth said. But many of the Obama team leads need no such refresher course. Rather than spending their time huddled up with current agency directors, Roth expects review teams to spend their time directly engaging with front-line employees and addressing their key concerns.

"The [team leads] have a unique front-line perspective and will be able to provide a 360-degree view of everything," he said. "They know what to look for."

The review teams began their work on Monday, and are expected to provide detailed reports to the Obama transition team prior to the Jan. 20 inauguration.

In addition to many government veterans, the teams have a healthy mix of private sector business leaders, former congressional aides and scholars at Washington think tanks-most notably the Center for American Progress. The organization is led by John Podesta, the head of Obama's transition team.

"[It] does seem to be a good mix," said John Burke, a professor at the University of Vermont who has gained expertise in 20th-century presidential transitions. "Often these people aren't well known. … Also, remember, these are not the policy people, but the teams responsible for taking a look at individual agencies and departments. Policy teams generally have more heavyweights."

For some team members, the reviews will be a blast from the not-so-distant past.

For example, Kaplan ended her five-year term at OSC in 2003 and maintains close relations with employees at the 110-person agency. Kaplan, like others reached by Government Executive, declined to discuss her new role -- the transition team has instructed review team members not to talk to the press -- but those familiar with the agency said she is uniquely qualified to review OSC.

"Some people thought she was laid back and others thought she was real tough," said Jim Mitchell, who, until recently, served as the agency's chief of staff. "It was hard to get a real consensus. But everyone had a lot of respect for her."

At the General Services Administration, some veteran agency staffers might remember Martha Johnson, who served as chief of staff to then-Administrator David Barram in 1996. Johnson, now a vice president at Computer Sciences Corp., a large government contractor, will conduct a review of GSA along with Jane Woodfin, a longtime aide to Vice President-elect Joe Biden.

The review of the Office of Management and Budget, meanwhile, will be conducted by Barbara Chow, current director of the Hewlett Foundation's Education Program. Chow previously served at OMB as associate director for education, income maintenance, and labor, as well as deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council.

Others selected by the Obama transition team might be less familiar to agency employees.

Stephen Crawford, deputy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and former division director of the National Governors Association, will lead a review of the U.S. Postal Service and the Postal Regulatory Commission.

Neither of the officials selected to review operations at the Office of Personnel Management have worked for the agency.

Linh Nguyen is president and founder of Morningside Consulting, a small firm that advises Fortune 100 companies and a host of federal agencies. Sylvia Bolivar is a top adviser for UNITE HERE, a labor union. She previously served in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.

Sally Katzen, who served as administrator of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and as deputy director for management during the Clinton administration, will lead the government operations and Executive Office of the President review teams.

It remains unclear whether the team leaders will be considered for top agency jobs.

"I have never seen a study tracking the people at this level of the transition with jobs in the new administration," Burke said. "Some might find their way into the administration, but the Cabinet secretary designate and the transition personnel operation are the key agents here."

The work of the agency review groups has been mixed over time. The late Richard Darman, OMB director under President George H.W. Bush, was quoted in Burke's 2000 book Presidential Transitions: From Politics to Practice as saying the teams were a "colossal waste of time."

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