Effective Governance Begins With an Effective Transition

Veterans of previous transitions share some hard-earned wisdom.

In a previous column, we outlined recommendations for how the next administration can get a fast start with sure footing. From strengthening the President’s Management Council, to setting up a triage system for regulatory review, we identified actions that can help jump-start the next administration. However, there is one action that can have more impact than any other—early and effective transition planning.

But what should transition teams focus on? What do past transition efforts tell us about ways to improve? How can transition teams fashion a management agenda that supports the implementation of campaign commitments and improves the operations of government?

The IBM Center for The Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service co-hosted a roundtable earlier this year to discuss how transition teams can operate most effectively in service of helping the next administration get a fast start on sure footing. The roundtable brought together current and former senior officials from administrations of both parties, as well as experts from academia and the private and non-profit sectors. Out of the discussion emerged actions that transition teams can take to increase the likelihood of a successful first year. 

The roundtable was the final in a series of seven as part of our “Management Roadmap” effort, a Ready to Govern (#Ready2Govern) initiative effort through the Center for Presidential Transition. The Center seeks to improve the transfer of power and knowledge between administrations. These Roundtables addressed the critical importance of strong leadership (see the related report on Executive Talent); the need for agency-specific and governmentwide approaches (read the report on Enterprise Government); and the challenge of decision-making (read the full report) in a time of transition.

The recommendations from the roundtable were clustered around three dimensions—people, structure and process.


Be clear that key members of the transition leadership team will themselves transition into the Presidential Personnel Office. Continuity in the appointee selecting and vetting operation is critical to getting the administration fully staffed in the first year.

Identify an experienced management executive. This person needs to have the full confidence of the president and should be brought into the transition team early.

Communicate how personnel selections will be made. Will the White House select and place all people? Will Cabinet and agency leaders select appointees within their areas? Will there be block placement of certain functions such as chief financial officers? Or will a combination of these approaches be used? This is an important decision and should be made early.

Develop a robust process for aligning personnel with the needed skills. This includes needs within agencies and across leadership teams, and in alignment with administration priorities. Personnel selection is a multi-dimensional Rubik’s Cube, but it should start with clarity around what skills the position demands.

Select individuals to be on leadership teams. High-performing teams have a mix of skills. Transition personnel should look at appointee selection through the lens of team formation. For example, attendees noted that deputy secretaries are the chief operating officers for departments. When they are selected primarily for their policy expertise or to be “secretaries in waiting,” the administration may miss an opportunity to create balanced leadership teams that can effectively operate departments and implement policy priorities.

Select the OMB Deputy Director for Management during the transition. That person could then be in charge of developing a management agenda to rollout at the start of the administration. 

Create a pool of vetted candidates from which appointees can be selected. This could significantly speed up the time it takes to get appointees into place.

Identify people and positions the new administration may want to retain. Appointees noted that several Bush appointees were held over to help deal with the financial crises until the new team could be put into place. 


The transition team should reflect how the administration wants to govern. Making the shift from transition to governing more seamless can decrease churn in the opening days of an administration, when the President’s influence is at its peak.

Prior to the election, determine the roles, responsibilities and lines of communication between the transition team and the campaign staff. Consider how campaign staff will be integrated into the transition operation after the election. The campaign-transition relationship can be fraught with tension and needs to be carefully managed.

Establish a team to focus specifically on the regulatory review process.

Establish a team to focus on creating an enterprise approach to governing. Additionally, integrate the responsibilities of that team with other policy teams so that the enterprise perspective gets incorporated into implementation plans across a range of policy areas. Cross-agency approaches can yield more effective methods to solving difficult challenges. Conducting policy implementation planning in the transition with an enterprise perspective will increase the likelihood of success.

Create links between personnel and policy teams. The effective flow of information within the transition teams can improve the selection of appointees by better aligning needs with potential candidates.

Take care when selecting team deputies. Deputies are critical to making transition teams function effectively—they make the trains run on time. Attendees suggested creating a deputies council to improve cross-team information flow and overall coordination.


Develop management principles. These can frame a detailed management agenda to be rolled out early in the administration. Getting a fast start on management can drive improvements across all four (or eight) years of the administration, which can provide multiple benefits—operationally and politically.

Set up decision-making processes during the transition. Think through how to approach routine (e.g. budget) and non-routine (e.g. crisis) decisions during the transition.

Harness existing processes and tools to implement priorities. These include the budget, cross-agency priority goals, acquisition and financial management cycles. Attendees advised that the next administration spend more time thinking about how to implement priorities using existing processes than how to change processes and organizational structures. 

These recommendations and more emerged from the roundtable, and we are grateful for the insights of the exceptional group assembled across administrations and parties. These actions, along with recommendations from previous roundtable reports, can help a new administration get a faster start and be more effective in implementing its priorities.

Dan Chenok is executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Alan Howze, a fellow at the IBM Center, is a senior adviser and project manager for the Management Roadmap initiative.