Great Expectations

Plan now for the presidential transition to guard against false starts in the new term.

On the evening of Nov. 4, as the nation awaits the presidential election results, the best senior leaders in the federal bureaucracy already will have spent many months considering the effect that a new administration will have on the organizations and programs they administer. Many others, however, will have delayed such transition planning, running the risk of quickly falling behind the curve when newly appointed policy officials take office, assess the people around them and institute changes.

Here are key questions senior leaders must ask themselves as they prepare for the arrival of a new administration:

When should we start transition planning?

Presidential campaigns have been lengthening, often into the spring of election year before the finalists become evident. In any case, transition planning should begin by early summer of the election year.

How can we know what to expect?

Set up a research team to develop likely scenarios of policies and governance approaches of a new administration. Candidates' Web sites are replete with position papers on a variety of policy matters, and campaigns should be monitored for proposals that would have any bearing on the agency's mission.

Are we in for a change?

As scenarios begin to take shape, gauge how agency operations might be affected. For example, how might the support network of interest groups and legislators change? How might new policies affect access to resources? Will there be regulatory changes?

What strategic and process adjustments might be necessary?

If budget cuts are possible, for example, develop contingency plans for marshaling support for maintaining current levels or shifting resources from other operations. If new initiatives could place additional responsibilities on the agency, then planning should focus on the acquisition of resources and technologies to carry them out. A strategic review of organizational components or processes likely to be affected is key to the agency's readiness for change.

Are we prepared organizationally?

Take a hard look at staff capabilities. Are executive responsibilities aligned to smoothly carry out the sorts of changes suggested in the possible scenarios, or would the changes create turf battles? What skills do key staffers need to respond to the expected imperatives of a new administration? Are internal and external coalitions likely to be agile enough to facilitate change, or are they likely to be obstacles? What can we do to avoid surprises?

Plans often are thrown off track by developments that really shouldn't have been surprising. A leader constantly must question the organization's preconceived notions about what kinds of problems are likely or not likely. Also, senior leaders must allow dissonant views to be heard to avoid an illusory consensus on what problems exist and what problems might arise.

How should we manage relationships with the outgoing administration?

Don't burn your bridges. Regardless of whether your working relationships with outgoing policy officials were constructive or contentious, parting on good terms is the best strategy for your agency and your career.

Peter H. Daly, a former federal executive, is co-author of The First 90 Days in Government: Critical Success Strategies for New Public Managers at all Levels (Harvard Business School Press, 2006). Contact him at

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