No Matter What Happens In November, a Transition is Coming

Government leaders face enormous uncertainty in the coming months. It’s bound to be a wild ride.

The air is already thick with talk about transition—whether to a Democratic administration or to a second term for President Trump. There’s always a swirl of uncertainty during presidential elections, but that’s even more true this time around. It’s hard to imagine a bigger potential swing than what the leading candidates might offer.

But amid all the debate, there are 10 big certainties, no matter which way the election swings.

1. Big changes are coming. The Democrats are all promising big things—very big things. But if the past is any guide, a second Trump administration would bring fundamental changes as well. Every new president wants to come roaring out of the gates. Every reelected president wants to put an indelible stamp on the presidency. New presidents have 4,000 positions to fill. Reelected presidents typically change up their cabinets as well as a large number of the political appointees they get to pick. The Partnership for Public Service has found that by the end of the first six months of the second term for Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, 43% of the top political positions turned over. As singer Sam Cooke put it: “a change is gonna come.” 

2. We will be surprised. The policy world spins at breakneck speed, and predicting which way it will next spin is tougher than beating the odds in Vegas. A Google search on February 25 showed 1.8 billion hits for “coronavirus.” No one but public health experts were talking about the disease before the end of last year. There’s one certainty about the policy world this time next year: A problem that we don’t now imagine will be leading the news. New York Yankee great Yogi Berra was right. It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. 

3. Citizens will want their problems solved. Americans, of course, don’t really care if their experts can’t predict the future. When problems occur, they want them solved. This certainly isn’t unreasonable. They pay taxes to support government. They expect government to hire experts. They want those experts to do what has to be done to solve the problems that matter. On one hand, this is a frightening amount of trust that Americans place in their government. On the other hand, it’s enormously empowering for government officials. As much as Americans complain about their government, they trust their government’s experts.

4. Citizens live in communities, not programs. Americans might trust their experts, but they have little patience for government programs that fail to connect with them where they live, on the problems they care about. One of the biggest problems with government’s response to Hurricane Katrina was that too many big challenges seemed to fall through the cracks—the cracks between government agencies as well as those between levels of government. Citizens simply have little patience for the “not my problem” reflex they too often see from government agencies. What they care about is government, as it affects them where they live. They figure that government ought to figure out how to make government work—and they’re right.

5. The solutions will come mostly from administrative, not legislative actions. The presidential candidates have a lot of bold ideas. Many of them are even worthwhile ideas. But whoever the next president is, Republican or Democrat, the odds are slim he or she will be able to pass new programs. Congress is as deeply divided as it has been in recent memory, and no matter the configuration of power in Washington next January, that’s not going to change. But legislative gridlock doesn’t need to lead to frozen policy. There’s a vast reservoir of potential for action through administrative steps. Indeed, the Trump administration is just beginning to sense the levers of powers it can pull on its own. Experienced Democrats are mapping those levers for themselves: regulatory reform, information policy, technology, contracting, tax breaks, loan programs—a deep and diverse toolkit of government action. Government can act without legislative action. The trick lies in figuring out which tools fit which problems—and who gets to wield them.

6. The administrative steps will need to be bridge building. The real power of government action lies in connecting the dots among the parts of government that share responsibility for important things. No single agency can own anything that really matters. Good agency managers know how to make connections with partners and stakeholders to get things done. That’s the way many communities have wiped out veterans’ homelessness. There’s a guide there for broader action.

7. The best bridge building steps will be nimble and agile. We’ve stumbled enough with big-think, big-bite programs that falter getting off the launch pad. It turns out that we’re just not smart enough to get anything important right the first time. Smart managers know the lessons of real rocket science: start small, experiment, don’t be afraid to fail (when the stakes are relatively minimal), learn what works and push aside what doesn’t, and move quickly to scale based on success. John W. Aaron, a legendary NASA flight controller, got a reputation as a "steely-eyed missile man." Great rocket scientists are great not because they get it right all the time but because they are nimble and agile in learning from mistakes.

8. Nimble steps require engaged employees. That agility comes from building teams of employees who share a relentless devotion to an agency’s mission and to serving the public. If there’s any lesson from the “best places to work in the federal government,” it’s that NASA is doing something right: The agency regularly places at the top. It helps to be doing something very cool, of course. But there’s more here. NASA has become a great place to work because it has a culture that engages all of its employees in its mission. The story is legendary: When a janitor once was asked what his job was, he replied, “to help put a man on the moon.” Engaged employees share the commitment to an agency’s mission.

9. These steps might be hard, but they sure beat the alternative. Engaged employees produce a better experience for the citizens they serve. A bad experience for citizens can back up into everything else an agency tries to do. Dissatisfied customers are twice as likely to contact agency helplines three or more times, consuming valuable resources. Dissatisfied customers are twice as likely to complain to elected officials. And a bad “defining moment” in a citizen’s experience can overwhelm everything else an agency tries to do. It turns out that citizens’ expectations are remarkably sensitive to their experience with a government agency. And it also turns out that these are precisely the things that government managers have in their immediate control, regardless of the high-wire political battles above them. 

10. Leaders gotta lead. As Taylor Swift might put it. Government—and its employees—are facing enormous uncertainty in the coming months. It’s bound to be a wild ride. But, on the other hand, these 10 certainties provide a bedrock foundation on which government’s leaders can lead. They not only provide a compass for guiding these leaders through the waves that lie ahead. But they also provide profound reassurance that they can make a difference—and that the difference they make will matter for the citizens they serve. 

Donald F. Kettl is the Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work (Princeton University Press). He can be reached at