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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

When ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Contempt’ for Government Is a Political Winner

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Flickr user Diego Cambiaso

Several good-government groups have mounted campaigns to improve the presidential transition process this year, with the aim of smoothing the path for the next administration to begin governing effectively. But there may be a complicating factor: Several of the candidates on the GOP side have little faith or trust in government, much less interest in doing the hard work in advance to make it work effectively.

“Ignorance of the traditional levers of government and contempt for those using them seems to be an advantage” in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, said Joshua Bolten, White House chief of staff to President George W. Bush, Wednesday. Bolten spoke at an event marking the launch of the Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service in Washington.

Exactly one year out from the next presidential inauguration, Bolten and Thomas “Mack” McLarty, chief of staff to President Clinton, talked at the event about the challenges facing incoming and outgoing administrations.

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he was viewed as an “illegitimate president” by half the country due to his bitterly contested victory over Al Gore, Bolten said. Since then, polarization in politics has gotten even worse, he contended.

“There’s always been an attitude of cooperation between incoming and outgoing administrations,” McLarty said. But that principle may be tested this time around, at a time when experts on transitions say it’s important to do better than previous transfers of power.

The incoming administration should aim to have 400 of its political appointees confirmed by the August 2017 congressional recess, Partnership president Max Stier said. With Congress more likely to approve nominees quickly at the beginning of an administration, “going fast is easier than going slow,” he said.

The new appointees should recognize “what a terrific resource there is in the professional civil service,” Bolten said. Civil servants, in turn, should take a page from the career staff at the Office of Management and Budget, he said: go to the new leadership and say, “Here’s the agenda we’ve been pursuing. Now we’re committed to your agenda. But here’s what you need to know.”

At the same time, Bolten warned of overwhelming the newcomers with too much information. Asked about the voluminous briefing books often prepared by career staff at agencies before transitions, “the answer sadly, is no, they probably didn’t get read,” he said. “They’re very hard to digest.”

Photo: Flickr user Diego Cambiaso

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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