2016 Presidential Transition Already Under Way, Think Tank Says

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With surveys showing trust in government at record lows, it’s not too early to begin an orderly and nonpartisan transition to the next presidential administration and begin rebuilding faith in agencies, an array of experienced federal officials told a conference on Thursday.

“The management issue is not usually the focus of a political campaign, but think of the management stumbles—from [Hurricane] Katrina to the launch of Healthcare.gov–that lost the confidence of the public,” said David Chu, a former top Pentagon personnel official now president of the Institute for Defense Analyses.

In focusing not on policy but how to carry it out, “We’re hoping to preclude the historic missteps such as ‘No New Taxes’ or `Mission Accomplished’ or “If you like your health plan, you can keep it,’ ” Chu told the fall meeting of the National Academy of Public Administration in Arlington, Va. “A 20 percent level of public trust is an extraordinary indictment of management competence.”

Under the theme “A Framework to Strengthen Governance,” the academy leaders vowed to “rebuild trust in government and highlight what works.” Presenters shared and debated early results of the academy’s member survey and transition project completed alongside such other nonprofits as the Partnership for Public Service, the American Society for Public Administration and American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation.

“We’ve already started the transition,” said C. Edward DeSeve, a longtime official at the Office of Management and Budget and Pennsylvania state government. He and colleagues have been in touch with OMB about preparations beginning in September and plan a more formal approach “that endures” in the spring, “after the primary field has been winnowed down but before the conventions.”

Among the tricky issues are maintaining a nonpartisan approach to getting political appointees fresh off of a perceived electoral mandate oriented and “bonded with their career counterparts,” DeSeve said. “Political appointees don’t know the technical aspects of government, and they need training, but we can’t call it that, so we call it a learning experience.”

Newly arriving officials should seek out and meet with the incumbents whether they’ve already left or not, Chu added. “There must be “a willingness to cross party lines and not just leave landmines.”

Former Office of Personnel Management Director Janice Lachance added, “The same mistakes get made over and over again.”

From the audience, Josh Gotbaum, former director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. now at the Brookings Institution, said, “You can’t tell political appointees they are idiots, so you tell them war stories involving both parties,” he said. Call it a “refresher course” and hold it at The George Washington University, he added. Newcomers should not only be encouraged to consult their predecessors, they should be called derelict if they fail to do so, he stressed.

NAPA’s “Transition 2016” project includes four panels, addressing collaboration across intergovernmental boundaries; evidence-based decision making; strategic foresight in planning and management; and recruiting and retaining career and appointed officials.

At a session on evidence-based decision making, Robert Shea, a program performance specialist at OMB under President George W. Bush and now a principal at Grant Thornton LLP, said a review of past budget documents shows them to be “devoid of context” on performance. “So if we want to move away from just compliance to be results-oriented, we need reform,” he said, noting that Government Accountability Office reports on efforts to use data to improve performance over the past dozen years have shown little improvement. “But to suggest that this GAO survey paints a picture that is accurate is mistake,” he said as co-panelists noted that Congress is moving a bill for evidence-based policymaking. “We have moved the ball down the field in performance management.”

Shelley Metzenbaum, former associate director for personnel and performance now a senior adviser at the Volcker Alliance, said she and colleagues in the Obama administration did not see performance data efforts as political. “There was no effort to throw out previous efforts” such as Shea’s. But she stressed an effort to link performance data to social indicators and to communicate results to external groups beyond Washington in more of a “bottom-up rather than top-down” approach. Invoking the mantra “useful, useful, useful,” she pressed for data collection efforts to be taken more seriously by budget planners.”

Helena Sims, director of intergovernmental relations at the Association of Government Accountants, warned that the evidence-based effort in Washington today is “an island surrounded by jargon.” She called for communicating with state, local and tribal governments “in terms they can understand, mocking such constructs as “evidence infrastructure,” and “tiered evidence approach.”

Kathy Newcomer, director of the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at The George Washington University, underlined the need for a “buy-in” on use of evidence data by Congress. “There can’t be any more OMB circulars,” she said, suggesting, however, that OMB beef up the staff on its “management side” focused on performance data. The place where the approach is truly working, Newcomer said, is in evaluating job training programs at the Labor Department, under Chief Evaluation officer Demetra Nightingale.

Nightingale, present to speak for herself rather than her department, said her department has communications programs to translate program performance data results to terminology a lay person could understand. Some 300 performance indicators “have cascaded down to the agency field offices, and managers are using them to evaluate programs,” she said. Many departments have an evidence-based clearinghouse with guidelines on data quality, she said.

Nancy Potok, deputy director and chief operating officer of the Census Bureau, who was also speaking on her own behalf, said, “People running programs don’t understand how data can help them,” which is why data scientists are needed to create visualizations,” she said. At one point, her bureau offered lawmakers data her staff thought would help them, for example, pick a site for a veterans hospital. One member scoffed, saying, “I don’t give a hoot about your data, I decide where the VA hospital goes.”

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