Tackling the Transition

Overhauling the mechanics of the transfer of power.

This was supposed to be the smoothest Presidential transition ever. For the first time, everybody was ready to go long before Election Day. Congress had agreed last fall to chip in extra cash to help pave the new administration's path into office. Groups of independent scholars had used new federal funding to prepare orientation programs for new appointees. Both the Bush and Gore campaigns had begun making plans to govern and the General Services Administration had outdone itself getting transition headquarters equipped for the first fully wired power transfer of the Information Age.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the transition. And as of early December, the government's transition headquarters at 1800 G Street, N.W., still was vacant, pending the conclusion of Vice President Al Gore's court contests of the Florida presidential vote and declaration of a clear winner of that state's decisive electoral votes. With Texas Gov. George W. Bush setting up his own transition office elsewhere using private donations, the 90,000 square feet of work space GSA had leased in downtown Washington stood unused. It wasn't until Dec. 13, when Gore finally conceded the election, that the Bush team received the keys to the transition offices. That left them with only a little more than a month to use the space. GSA's transition center shuts down after the inauguration.

GSA prides itself on being ready for anything between Election Day and the inauguration. The agency sets up, supplies and operates the transition headquarters for the new administration's 540 or so employees, dozens of political appointees and thousands of job applicants. And GSA makes switching administrations look easy. Consider, for example, the Transition Team Welcome Center. Just two blocks from the White House, the center is housed in the rented G Street building that GSA has turned into an inner sanctum for the incoming administration. With carpeting salvaged from other federal jobs and furnishings scavenged from federal agencies, the room is humble, sensible and utterly unremarkable-like a waiting room at a suburban dental office.

"This room shows what we're all about," says June Huber, director of presidential transition support for GSA, the agency in charge of making sure that the President-elect and his people can glide seamlessly into offices and focus on getting ready to govern. "It's a comfortable, attractive space that doesn't look temporary. It doesn't look like something we've put together piecemeal."

The President-elect can only hope that he can say the same about his new administration. For all of its importance to the President and the nation, a new administration often is cobbled together in a mad, 11-week dash through thousands of resumes. The trick is to make the team appear carefully planned and its members well chosen. That's never easy, and it's especially difficult this year, when the incoming transition team must make up for time lost in the battle that followed November's stranger-than-strange presidential election. "A transition is a damn hard thing to do well in the best of circumstances, but nobody's ever had to deal with anything like this before," says Paul Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution and senior adviser to the Presidential Appointee Initiative. PAI is a Brookings project funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts to improve the appointments process.

"With each passing day without a designated transition, you're losing valuable time to achieve policy goals in the critical honeymoon period of a new administration," says Virginia Thomas, senior fellow in governmental studies at the Heritage Foundation. "You have to start fast, before the forces of this town start bearing down."

New technologies were supposed to make the job easier this year. This, after all, is the first transition to benefit from the World Wide Web and e-mail. The first in which just about everybody comes to town with laptop in hand. "There were two or three laptops in the Clinton team in 1992 that connected Washington to Little Rock," Huber says. "You could count them on one hand. This time, they're standard equipment." GSA has set up an intranet that will allow appointees and transition team members to tap into vital news as well as tips on moving to and living in Washington. Everything about the transition, from designing offices to preparing contracts and even depositing paychecks has been computerized. "The difference between this transition and others, technologically, is like night and day," says Peggy Earnhardt, the GSA transition team's human resources manager.

The new Bush administration also will be the first to benefit from the 2000 Presidential Transition Act. The law amends the 1963 Presidential Transition Act. Congress voted last year to provide extra money, training and a mandate to get the planning for presidential transitions moving before Election Day. Passed with bipartisan support and signed by President Clinton in October, the beefed-up Presidential Transition Act provided $4.3 million for GSA-about $700,000 more than in the two previous transitions-to help set up the offices for the transition team and take care of other administrative matters. The money must be spent within 30 days after the inauguration. It also provided $1 million to pay for orientation programs and an information directory about the federal government for the top 50 appointees.

"One of our major goals in the 2000 act was to change the mind-set of the campaigns and the public about when and how to plan for a presidential transition," says Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill along with the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. "The act says the right thing to do is to begin planning before the election is held."

And the law did get both campaigns and GSA talking well before Election Day. But Light and other experts praise the law as a tool whose impact will be felt down the line. "It has the potential for being a very useful first step," Light says. "Every major reform begins with a first step and I think the Transition Act of 2000 is really going to be seen as a wedge for opening up a larger reform opportunity."

The act was the brainchild of Dwight Ink, president emeritus of the Institute of Public Administration and a veteran of every transition since Dwight D. Eisenhower became President. Elected to the National Academy of Public Administration in 1969, Ink is a former acting administrator of GSA and assistant director for executive management at the Office of Management and Budget. Ink knew well the problems that appointees encounter and wanted to help them cope. "The pressures from all sides and the intrusive scrutiny that characterize Washington come as a shock for which they are not prepared. And they find they are expected to develop new programs and legislative proposals that have to be advanced through a maze of laws, processes and practices with which they are unfamiliar," Ink says. "Yet time is of the essence in the first days and weeks of an administration when the opportunities are greatest."

Working independently four years ago, Ink began developing the concept for a transition bill that would emphasize a series of informal orientations and workshops. The original House version of the transition bill was sponsored by Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., a member of the House Government Reform Committee. The Senate version added more provisions. But Ink believes that the workshops will prove the most valuable gifts to appointees: They need to learn quickly about the roles of the White House staff and their relationships with government departments and how to deal with Congress. "Early mistakes in handling relations with Congress, particularly those that create distrust, will delay consideration of administration legislative initiatives and generate an unnecessary level of opposition, leading to hostile hearings and crippling amendments," Ink says. "I believe these missteps could be reduced, and the initial batting average of a new President's legislative proposals could be improved, if top political appointees were to spend time during the transition talking informally with people from both parties who occupied similar positions in prior administrations and who, as part of an orientation program, would share their experience in working with Congress.

"Past mistakes in working with Congress can be as illuminating as successes," Ink adds. "The perspectives of scholars who have studied the respective roles of the presidency and Congress could also be of help." The key, Ink says, is that the orientations not be stuffy lectures. The sessions should be informal and focus on issues that stimulate discussion rather than serve as a fixed agenda, he says.

A number of nonprofit organizations have worked over the last few months with GSA, the White House Office of Presidential Personnel and the Office of Personnel Management to prepare orientation programs. They include the Council for Excellence in Government, the American Enterprise Institute, the National Academy of Public Administration, the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation and the Center for the Study of the Presidency. The President-elect's staff ultimately will choose the content of the orientations, and GSA has until fiscal 2001 to spend the $1 million that Congress allocated for the workshops and for working with the National Archives and Records Administration to develop the transition directory-a compendium of information about the federal government. The Center for the Study of the Presidency, for one, is preparing seminars on leadership and values led by "some of the top executives in the land," says Gilbert Robinson, the center's chief operating officer. And the center has published and will present a 300-page book, Report to the President-Elect 2000: Triumph and Tragedies of the Modern Presidency to the President-elect and his top appointees. The book includes 76 case studies by journalists and scholars on presidential successes and failures since the FDR era.

The Heritage Foundation has prepared performance management orientations that deal with agency budgets and goals. "We like to think this is nonpartisan to some extent," says Heritage's Thomas. "Focusing on results is something that should appeal to both parties. It should appeal to anybody who doesn't just want to keep doing things the old-fashioned way." The transition act also launched a study that might lead to the overhaul and streamlining of financial reporting requirements dictated by the 1976 Ethics in Government Act. Officials from both parties say the requirements are perhaps the biggest headache of any transition. C. Boyden Gray, counsel to President George Bush, says that the financial disclosure form is "impossible to fill out accurately and fairly and honestly" because its definitions don't match those of the Internal Revenue Code. But the study won't be finished until April-too late to help the new administration. "This generation is going to have to grin and bear it," Light says.

While the new transition law's immediate impact remains to be seen, the new administration can count on Huber and her GSA team. A 26-year GSA veteran, Huber has worked on every transition since Ronald Reagan was first elected, and she finds them exhilarating. "So many people we work with in a transition have never worked in the federal government before," Huber says. "They come here and they've got preconceived notions about [what] federal career employees are all about, and we're their introduction. We are the ones that they will be working with on a day-to-day basis. We're going to have to create a good first impression not only on behalf of the GSA but on behalf of the whole federal government."

Huber heads a core staff of 30 who planned the offices for the new administration. The space includes the entire second and eighth floors at the G Street building, a mailroom and a supply center. Huber's staff makes sure that the computers and telephones work, pens and pencils are available, trash is picked up, the vending machines are stocked and paychecks arrive on time. Essentially, GSA set up a new company with a staff of 540. "This is what GSA is all about," Reath says. "This is the kind of thing we do every day." But the agency's employees consider the transition duty special. "How often do you get to make an impression on somebody who might just become the next Secretary of a government agency?" asks David Riggs, deputy director of GSA's transition team.

Technology makes providing the service easier and cheaper. M.A. "Skip" Gerdes Jr., the transition team's telecommunications group leader, says the telephone system that used to take 10 employees to install and maintain now takes just two. "What we used to do with an old bunch of telephones and hard wires, we can now do with a keystroke," he says.

Payroll and benefits, which used to keep transition team human resources manager Earnhardt working late to make sense of multiple copies of every form, now is a point-and-click affair. The biggest help, Earnhardt says, is having computers available for job applications: The biggest paperwork nightmare in any transition is handling thousands of resumes. But all the technology in the world can't guarantee the administration is going to get off to a running start. "Ultimately, it all comes down to who's going to be appointed to what post in the Cabinet," Light says. "The key decisions aren't made by computers. They're made by the President-elect."

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