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Homeland Security issues contract for presidential transition planning help

Nonprofit group will organize a bipartisan advisory panel and develop a plan to prepare for the next administration.

The Homeland Security Department has hired a Washington-based nonprofit organization to help plan for the changeover to a new presidential administration in January 2009.

DHS awarded a sole-source contract to the Council for Excellence in Government to conduct a range of activities aimed at ensuring a seamless transition to new leadership, according to a procurement notice posted online last week. The one-year contract is worth $305,000, and asks the organization to create an advisory blue-ribbon group, hold workshops for key governmental leaders and help with a Homeland Security transition plan.

"A presidential transition is a very significant event. You basically have a complete changing of the political guard pretty much at one time," said Patricia McGinnis, the council's president and chief executive officer. "When it comes to national security and homeland security, obviously a smooth transition -- having people who are coming into place already understanding what the existing processes and protocols and communications [are] around any kind of threat or emergency -- is very important."

The bipartisan blue-ribbon panel will help guide the work. The council will run 30-person, interactive workshops beginning next July, at which federal officials and other experts will go through potential scenarios and discuss a curriculum of what they need to know to make the transition smooth.

At a minimum, incoming appointees should know what information they need in an emergency, the people with whom they need to communicate and the method of communication, McGinnis said.

"As we saw with Hurricane Katrina, you really have to have people understanding their roles and responsibilities before something like that happens in order to be able to protect people and save lives," she said.

The procurement notice said the council was the only responsible source that could meet the department's requirements.

The council releases the quadrennial Prune Book, a guide for political appointees. The organization also helped orient presidential appointees at the request of the Clinton and Bush administrations, McGinnis said. And the council ran the pilot version of the DHS Fellows program, which convened up-and-coming senior managers from across the department. Finally, the nonprofit worked with government groups, businesses and citizens to produce the Readiness Quotient, an online tool that measures disaster preparedness.

Former DHS secretary Tom Ridge, former Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator James Lee Witt and 9/11 commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton are among the council's trustees.

McGinnis said the organization typically helps incoming political appointees in the midst of a transition rather than this far in advance, and she commended DHS for asking for this work 15 months before the actual changeover.

Many observers are concerned about how DHS will handle the coming transition, because it is the first change in administrations for a department that already has suffered from a high level of turnover in leadership positions. According to a June article in National Journal, this problem is exacerbated by the department's high ratio of political appointees -- who likely will leave when this administration ends -- to career employees, who will stay.

The 180,000-employee DHS had more than 360 political appointees in September 2004, compared to only 64 appointees at the 235,000-person Veteran Affairs Department, according to that article. Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer Michael Jackson, who has played a key role in running DHS, announced his resignation last week.

During a transition between administrations, career officials often ascend to take over on an acting basis leadership positions usually held by political appointees.

"The whole nomination and confirmation process does take a while so there is a fairly extended period where you have a mix of some new people [and] acting people," McGinnis said.

Mike Hopmeier, a former adviser to various agencies and president of the Mary Esther, Fla.-based consulting firm Unconventional Concepts Inc., said writing a transition plan is an inherently governmental function and should be handled internally by the department.

"Periodically transition plans are contracted out," he said. "It almost always ends up in failure."

DHS spokesman Larry Orluskie said the contract was necessary.

"They're not writing the plan, they're helping us in engaging other federal agencies," Orluskie said. "To have a staff do that within the department, someone has to be taken away from their duties…. Or you can contract someone who has the experience to do that, and that's what the Council for Excellence in Government is going to do: share that past experience with large federal agency transitions."

McGinnis added that the process would be collaborative.

"We're not a consulting firm," she said. "We don't see ourselves as the usual contractor."