December 11, 2012
President Obama’s reelection means there is not a presidential transition in the usual sense of the word. Compared with four years ago, there will be no building a staff from scratch, learning the ropes of working in the White House and federal agencies, or navigating a wholesale hand-off of power from an outgoing president. Under the radar, however, there is still a transition happening and, because of its timing, these 75 days between the election and inauguration are as important as ever.
After four exhausting years, many high-profile appointees among Obama’s first-term cadre of Cabinet secretaries and White House aides are leaving. But in quieter fashion, there also is an exodus of sub-Cabinet officials from dozens of large, complex agencies. Beneath the surface -- away from the cable television chatter and front page headlines -- these assistant secretaries or deputy administrators are the people who, in partnership with senior career leaders, actually run the federal government day-to-day. And, contrary to the general view that this is a placid moment, the transition under way for these positions matters more than ever.
This transition occurs not during a quiet post-election lull, but in the midst of the fierce and fundamental debates over government spending surrounding the so-called fiscal cliff. These budget pressures mean change is unavoidable for federal agencies. Agency leaders -- newly appointed and continuing alike -- must choose between being buffeted by today’s budgetary events and taking proactive steps now that not only save money but also improve performance. We are entering an era of more for less, and the people actually running the federal government are going to face new demands and tensions that require new approaches.
The good news is during the president’s first term many agencies established a solid foundation. Successful examples in areas such as customer service and permit processing have led to clear roadmaps and proven tools for senior managers across the government. The bad news, however, is under any near-term budget deal scenario, the cuts to agencies will be significant, the effects often immediate. Simply put, agency leaders must find ways to do better with less and the current fiscal pressure cooker means they must take action quickly.
The sub-Cabinet team has a critical role to play in meeting the challenge. Three principles can help them accomplish the goal:
The debate over our fiscal future so often gets simplified to one about cuts and revenue, dollars and cents. The challenge for agency leaders and front-line staff alike is to use this moment to drive performance improvement and change the way the work of government gets done. Employees at all levels understand that change is coming at every agency as an era of more for less takes hold. The task for new leaders coming into their jobs -- and those staying on -- is to find ways to be the architects, not the prisoners, of that change. That is an immense responsibility, but one that will define the future of their departments and the federal government for years to come.
Vivian Riefberg is leader of the public sector practice in the Americas at McKinsey & Co. Jon Wilkins is a director at McKinsey & Co. and was a member of the Obama-Biden 2008 transition team.
December 11, 2012