Beyond the acrimony and headlines of one of the most contentious presidential elections in history, two seasoned federal executives are working hard to deliver on an aspect of President Obama’s management agenda most Americans would support: executing a smooth and seamless transition to a new administration.
Fresh off a meeting of the Agency Transition Directors Council on Oct. 6, Andrew Mayock, senior adviser for management at OMB, and Tim Horne, federal transition coordinator at the GSA, sat for an interview with Government Executive in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to discuss Obama’s vow to meet or exceed the effective handoff his team was given by the George W. Bush staff in 2008.
“Folks are pulling together to do the work,” Mayock said. Horne, now working on his third presidential transition, said “GSA faces this challenge every four years, so it has to be ready.” The duo talks by phone every day, working out the details of the massive power hand-off that takes place with every new administration.
GSA has an expanded and more formalized role under the transition law signed by Obama in March. Because the presidential campaigns do not receive direct federal funding for transition planning, GSA was given $13.3 million to provide office space, equipment, and other administrative support for eligible nominees—only the major party candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, in this cycle.
Once the votes are counted after Nov. 8, GSA will disburse another $9.5 million to support the president-elect and his or her transition team, as well for moving the outgoing administration.
“These things that are happening would have happened with or without the new law from the administration’s standpoint, but in different spots in the government.” Horne said. “Now there’s a central focal point. The legislation formally set up my role, which is to help whomever is elected to squeeze every minute out of that 73 days” between Election Day and the Inauguration, he said.
In addition to serving as GSA’s transition coordinator, Horne also co-chairs the governmentwide Agency Transition Directors Council with Mayock and serves as liaison to the Clinton and Trump teams. He’s also responsible for ensuring that other agencies with transition responsibilities meet their statutory requirements.
Perhaps the most dramatic change for GSA this year will be housing the incoming president’s transition operations at the agency’s newly renovated building at 1800 F Street, N.W., with its open-office layout. During some previous transitions, GSA had to lease commercial office space.
“It’s testament to the mobile environment GSA has created that we can swing people out for six to eight months in one part of the building. Taxpayers will never have to pay again—it’s a permanent home for the transition.”
It also places GSA at the center of the transition. “I tell employees they get to be part of a really important process that exists nowhere else in the world,” he added. “GSA is extremely proud to be part of it.”
The Obama administration began planning this transition as far back as December 2015, Mayock said. The first major meeting of the principals and the Cabinet was hosted in March by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough “to set out a broad framework,” he said. That allowed the White House Transition Coordinating Council and the Agency Transition Directors Council to “flesh out the direction we were already headed in, and it provided the two teams, for the eligible candidates, the space and room to go about their work in a more dynamic fashion,” Mayock said.
Both the Clinton and Trump transition teams “are very solid partners,” Mayock said, their principals having attended meetings of both the new transition councils. That means regular phone calls with Rich Bagger and Bill Hagerty on the Trump campaign (executive director and director for presidential appointments, respectively), and Ann O’Leary and Ed Meier on the Clinton campaign (co-executive directors). New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is Trump’s chairman, and former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is Clinton’s chairman.
The main White House executive for the campaign transition teams is deputy chief of staff Anita Decker-Breckenridge, with whom Mayock coordinates closely.
The campaign transition teams for the most part operate out of the media glare. Mayock acknowledged the “off the record” retreat that White House officials attended in April in Westchester County, N.Y., in which he and Horne participated. It featured presentations from people who ran Mitt Romney’s 2012 transition readiness project or who were instrumental in the Obama-Biden effort in 2008. “It was a good experience for all of us to gain the knowledge, to learn from past experience and build it into ours,” Mayock said.
Mayock and Horne work to foster close communication with the many other agencies, boards and commissions across the federal government, said Mayock, who has worked for OMB, the Treasury Department and the Millennium Challenge Corporation under two administrations. Because Mayock also chairs the President’s Management Council, he is able to keep transition duties front and center for deputy secretaries.
Mayock and Horne also stress the importance of avoiding partisan bias. They regularly remind political appointees and career officials they must give career staff the space to prepare for the transition.
Fulfilling Obama’s directive to make it “smooth and seamless means we deliver for whomever becomes president-elect,” Mayock said. The transition directors are “senior career people who by nature of their job and title are nonpolitical folks. Their enthusiasm and competence are extraordinary.”
Horne added that transition directors understand their task: “It’s a well-oiled machine.”
A common error by career employees in past transitions has been to prepare lengthy documents on how their agency works. This year, Mayock said, “There’s a mantra throughout the transition to provide what is needed in user-friendly amounts. Specifically within the context of some of our work at OMB, we’re basically relying on one to two pages per issue set. It’s demand driven,” he continued. “Let’s respond to the demand of the president elect’s team, instead of spending a lot of time imagining what they want and producing a lot of paper they may not use.”
Neither the White House nor GSA get involved in enforcing the obligations of the Trump and Clinton transition teams to disclose donations or preserve internal documents subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
What they do address, Mayock noted, are post-election ethics issues for departing officials. “As part of the transition process, every agency must prepare for the departure of political appointees," he said. “That includes a number of components so they exit well and wisely, and among the most essential is ethics.”
Both Mayock and Horne see a big part of their job as communicating to all stakeholders, including the American public. “It’s an extraordinary thing about our government—that attribute, that character, that comes in play every four or eight years,” Mayock said. “The federal government delivers on it.”