Steep Climb

With so many pressing issues facing the nation, this transition better go off without a hitch.

Gathering storm clouds. Turbulent rapids. Massive mountains. Observers are using many metaphors to describe the unique circumstances surrounding the upcoming transfer of power from President George Bush to President-elect Barack Obama.

The United States has faced deeper crises during transitions-ranging from the secession of the Southern states during the handoff from James Buchanan to Abraham Lincoln to the Great Depression, which began during Herbert Hoover's administration and continued well into Franklin Delano Roosevelt's-but it is rare that the government has had to deal with so many challenges at once. The nation is engaged in two wars, is in the midst of an economic crisis, and federal agencies are operating under the strained budgets of a continuing resolution. And the entire process is overshadowed by heightened fears that terrorists will test the new administration with an attack.

These issues require a daunting amount of work for the new president, but their urgency has had a paradoxical effect. The challenges of homeland security, the economic crisis, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are so great that the Bush administration ramped up early for the transition, with more aggressive and comprehensive planning than ever before. And good government groups have worked to avoid overlap and to maximize their impact by uniting around a common agenda and coordinating their push for the swift confirmation and education of new political appointees.

While acknowledging the magnitude of the challenges awaiting Obama, observers both in and outside government predict this could be a model transition, providing the foundation for improving a notoriously difficult process.

One of the first tests of the transition will be the administration's handoff of the Office of Financial Stability, the Treasury Department entity created when President Bush signed the massive bailout program for the nation's financial system.

"You had many of the Great Society programs that were under way when Nixon arrived. Medicare had been up and running for a couple of years, and Nixon had priorities there to shepherd, but it wasn't as urgent," says Paul C. Light, Paulette Goddard Professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. "There wasn't a major program coming out of the Hoover administration that Roosevelt had to deal with."

The transition will be even more complicated because the Office of Financial Stability has not hired substantial numbers of staffers to manage the bailout. A group of political appointees is overseeing contractors, and it was unclear in mid-November whether those employees would stay on in the new administration. The president will have to move quickly to get his economic team nominated, through the security clearance process, and confirmed by the Senate to build confidence in these new leaders and avoid roiling the markets again, says Donald F. Kettl, the Robert A. Fox Leadership Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd has said the next Treasury secretary should be confirmed before Obama is in office, though that process normally takes place shortly after Inauguration Day.

The bailout is only one of many priorities competing for the president's immediate attention. He will have to move quickly to submit a budget and sort through spending priorities at a time when many agencies are operating under a continuing resolution. And while voters now say the economy is much more important to them than the war in Iraq, Obama is under pressure to re-examine U.S. involvement in that conflict.

The new president will have to address these issues as he gets his executive branch up and running. Unlike Lincoln and Roosevelt, who were inaugurated in March, Obama will have less time to pick appointees and consider policy strategy. Beginning with Roosevelt's second term in 1937 the inauguration moved to Jan. 20. Now leaders across government are taking a long, hard look at the transition process earlier than ever before.

A Sense of Urgency

"The outgoing team is preparing and laying the groundwork, even as all these other things are happening-the recession, the wars and potential homeland security issues," says John Kamensky, a senior fellow with the IBM Center for the Business of Government. "I've not seen this kind of preparation by an outgoing administration before."

The Bush administration has created specific guidance for federal agencies and met with senior career transition coordinators at every agency to discuss best practices and continuity of operations.

As of the inauguration, all agencies will have established their fiscal 2009 program goals and plans to address high-risk and other management areas set out by the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Management and Budget, according to Clay Johnson, OMB's deputy director for management and leader of the Bush administration transition in 2000.

"Agencies will continue to focus on their desired program, high-risk and management outcomes while the new administration is assembling and preparing to establish its own priorities," Johnson told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the federal workforce in September.

Bush signed an executive order in October to establish a presidential transitional coordinating council to work with the Obama and McCain campaigns "on an equal basis and without regard for party affiliation." The council includes top officials from the intelligence and national security community, as well as the White House budget office, the Justice and Homeland Security departments, and other federal agencies.

The White House Presidential Personnel Office has developed roadmaps for the new administration that recommend 100 appointees be confirmed by April 1 and 400 by Aug. 1. Historically, incoming administrations have had only 25 appointees confirmed by April 1. Clearing the recommended amount would be unprecedented for any presidential transition, Kamensky says. "If you look at history, you could say that would be aspirational," he says, "but if you look at the circumstances, you say, 'Yeah, we can do this.' "

Frank Chellino, panel chairman for the Homeland Security Department transition study at the National Academy of Public Administration, contends that clearing only 100 appointees by April 1 is unacceptable in light of the challenges that exist. "Why that process cannot be expedited given the history of what's happened over the last eight years is exasperating to me," he says, "and I really feel there's no reason why 1,500 appointees can't be cleared by June 1."

The key to a quick confirmation process for political appointees is a more accelerated schedule for security clearances and background investigations, according to Michael Jackson, former deputy secretary at DHS. "The new administration has to be possessed with an intensity of managing that process more aggressively," he says. "The drag on the confirmation process is the security clearances."

Chellino says simply dedicating more FBI agents beyond the current 50 who conduct background investigations would expedite the confirmation process. "For the bureau to deploy 150 agents on this, I don't see why it would call for a massive adjustment," he says. "Their plate is full, but nothing is more critical than getting these background investigations done."

Patricia McGinnis, outgoing president of the Council for Excellence in Government, says another important responsibility in the transition falls to the Senate. "Some steps should be taken in the Senate on a bipartisan basis to ensure that confirmations come to vote within a reasonable and short period of time," she says. "I think 30 days is reasonable."

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said at a hearing in September that he and Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, planned to advise all Senate committees on the qualities they should look for in nominees and to encourage a speedier confirmation process. "There has to be a way we can move this thing along so we aren't the problem, when so often we are the problem," he said.

Given the heightened risk of a terrorist attack or a natural disaster during the transition period, Jackson says the new administration must be in place and ready to respond. "If there were a dirty bomb explosion or a subway attack, these people have to be prepared to understand what the national response plan is and understand the responsibilities to be able to respond effectively," he says. "That's the sense of urgency that didn't burden the last presidential transition with such intensity."

The pressing challenges have not changed the General Services Administration's approach, says Gail Lovelace, the agency's transition director. "GSA's role is not really to focus on those policy issues that the incoming administration will face," she says. "Our role is more about the logistical support to make sure they're ready to hit the ground running and deal with those issues." The agency also is in charge of planning the inauguration.

Like other agencies in transition, GSA has turned more attention to people issues, says Lovelace, who also is the agency's chief human capital officer. This is the first transition for CHCOs, created by law in 2002, some of whom are political appointees. The goal is to ensure that they make a smooth departure, she says, while deputy and career CHCOs prepare the workforce to help the new administration.

"We really cannot afford to miss a beat," Lovelace says. "The CHCO Council has really done a good job of making sure we all stay focused on [transition]." The CHCO Council, made up of human resources leaders from 23 agencies, has dedicated three of its meetings this year to transition planning, says John Salamone, executive director of the council. The panel also has met with federal labor unions and other groups about the issues employees face in the transition, he says.

"The council has been a great mechanism for sharing cutting-edge human capital practices across government," he says. "I would say at every meeting that we've had this year, we've had a piece that focuses on the transition."

Salamone says the council has been helping deputy CHCOs ensure continuity through communication and coordination among the council, chief human capital officers and other chief executives.

The CHCO Council's annual report to Congress, which typically has been a recap of the council's meetings, will be drafted as a transition document, Salamone says. "It will look back on the last five years of the council, saying here are the structural issues that have been important and have been successful, things like adding deputy CHCOs, the subcommittees on the council, and the training academy sessions," he says, "It's not a perfect document, but it's a collection of information for the next administration."

Banding Together

As government leaders prepare to ease the initial phases of the transition, advocacy groups have banded together to get new appointees in place quickly and prepared to do their jobs. These organizations plan to keep pressure on the Obama administration to develop a substantive management agenda and focus on the state of the federal workforce even after the initial handoff is complete. "The more leaders and organizations work together to send consistent messages and provide different perspectives, but consistent perspectives on what's needed . . . that is critical," says McGinnis.

The council is among the organizations that signed on to the package of management reform proposals the Partnership for Public Service released in early October. The recommendations-which include training federal managers and redesigning the federal hiring and pay systems-also were endorsed by the Center for the Study of the Presidency, the advocacy group Coalition for Effective Change, the IBM Center for the Business of Government, the National Academy of Public Administration and research institute CNA.

The Government Performance Coalition, a clearinghouse of 18 government reform groups chaired by Jonathan Breul, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, is coordinating their initiatives to avoid duplication and waste of limited resources.

"We maximize the effectiveness," says Max Stier, president of the Partnership. "I think there's frankly insufficient attention paid to these issues; if you look at environmental issues, or children's issues, or any other issue of importance, there are probably too many groups."

The initiatives are wide-ranging. The Council for Excellence in Government has put together a bipartisan panel to guide the transition at the Homeland Security Department, examining continuity of operations plans and running workshops for the staff who will work with outgoing and incoming political appointees. The council has launched a Web portal for political nominees to provide everything from job expectations to histories of past transitions, aggregating resources from across the Internet. The IBM Center published two books offering advice to career executives and appointees alike on navigating the presidential transition. And the Partnership is putting on a strong public push for speedy confirmation of appointees.

Aside from the transition, good government groups see a rare opening for a broader reform agenda.

"That's a major difference between the last transition and this one, a great understanding of the fact that the work of government and of the people, and the quality of the people in government, is going to be crucial," says John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership. "That sets up a mandate for the next administration to focus not just on new policies and new programs and all that, but to focus on the management of the government."

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