Get Ready: Presidential Transitions Are Full of Surprises

The complicated shift to a new administration began months ago, but for some, the hard part is just beginning.

In early August, shortly after the party conventions ended, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump moved their transition teams into office space near the White House. Briefing books were prepared for the teams, and both nominees began receiving intelligence reports. The search for 100 pre-cleared individuals who could move quickly into sensitive roles following the Nov. 8 election began. The General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget are playing the lead roles in coordinating all of this.

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, a new and different phase of the transition will begin. The pre-inauguration phase encompasses the 73 days between the election itself and Jan. 20, 2017, when the nation’s 45th president will take the oath of office. Agency-specific transition teams, or “landing teams,” will move into space around the city. Cabinet secretaries will be selected, with certain departments (Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, State, etc.) at the head of the queue. And the bureaucratic march towards assuming power will begin in earnest.

Much can change during a presidential transition – people (obviously), but also priorities, policies, enterprise focus, organizational alignments, the game plan, and budget initiatives and particulars. The new administration must craft a budget for the 2018 fiscal year to present to a new Congress. And key sub-Cabinet picks will need to be designated.

The New Yorker reported late last month that Trump aides are organizing what someone close to the campaign calls the First Day Project: “We want to identify maybe 25 executive orders that Trump could sign literally the first day in office.” Trump’s transition team is also reported to be identifying executive orders issued by President Obama that can be undone in the first days as well.

On the morning of Jan. 20 the president-elect will visit President Obama at the White House for coffee, before they share a limousine ride to the Capitol for the noon inauguration. And so begins the third phase: the post-inauguration transition, which may last well into the early fall of 2017. This can be a time of surprises -- even crisis.

The Partnership for Public Service and others have noted that the first 270 days of an administration can bring major challenges. Just look at this partial list of presidents and what they confronted shortly after taking office:

  • John F. Kennedy – Bay of Pigs
  • Lyndon Johnson – Gulf of Tonkin incident
  • Ronald Reagan – Assassination attempt
  • George H.W. Bush – Panama invasion
  • Bill Clinton – World Trade Center bombings
  • George W. Bush  – Sept. 11 attacks

Obama’s initial years in office marked the first time in 50-plus years that no crisis marred the start of an administration (if you don’t count the financial crisis he inherited in 2008).

Other surprises can occur. In 1997, everyone expected Sam Nunn to be nominated as Secretary of Defense; instead, it was William Cohen. In 2001, Dan Coates was the anticipated nominee; instead it was Donald Rumsfeld. Expectations can clash with reality. Again at Defense, Caspar Weinberger was viewed as someone who would cut the budget; instead President Reagan increased it. A surprise choice as secretary may upend months of preparatory transition work.

Finally, the new administration will have about 1,000 senior appointee positions to fill – from tens of thousands of candidates. Due diligence is required. Job seekers need to be recruited and screened. Interviews need to be scheduled. Selectees must navigate a challenging disclosure and compliance process. And then there’s the tyranny of time:

  • A White House decision may take two weeks
  • FBI clearance will take at least 10 weeks
  • Ethics/financial reviews will take another two weeks
  • Courtesy calls and confirmation will take another three weeks

And these are optimistic estimates, applicable to those who enter the process early.

For jobs that hold special interest for federal management – the federal chief information officer and chief financial officer, the head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, the deputy director for management at OMB, GSA administrator and departmental counterparts – it will likely take much longer. It may be months before we see a quorum at any meeting of the Chief Information Officers Council or Chief Acquisition Officers Council. So be patient, and be considerate of the career officials who will be in “acting” roles. It may be summer before the new administration fields a full team and we are reviewing a new management agenda, a budget with new priorities and initiatives, and have a clear sense of what will carry over from the Obama-Biden years.

See also: The Upcoming Presidential Transition: A Guide for Career Managers and Executives

Alan Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems’ U.S. Public Sector.