Coming Soon: A Short Window for Improving Federal Agencies’ Performance

For career executives, the time between the presidential election and the inauguration is an opportunity to use evidence and data to advise incoming political appointees on what works and what doesn't.

No matter who wins the presidency in November, the next few months will be a time of change for federal agencies’ leadership teams. If Donald Trump wins reelection, there will be a reshuffling of political appointees, as typically occurs between terms. If Joe Biden wins, a sweeping turnover of appointees will take place after the inauguration in January.

For career agency executives, who stay on between administrations, those leadership changes create a valuable opportunity: a chance to use credible evidence and data to advise newly appointed leaders about what’s working and what’s not. It’s a window of opportunity, in other words, for career leaders to make their agencies more efficient and effective.

Now is the time for career staff to prepare for that opportunity so they’re ready to be trusted advisers when new leadership arrives. To do that, we recommend they take the following steps:

  • Reflect on what’s working well and what isn’t. Career staff should examine which agency programs, initiatives, rules, regulations and other ways of operating are supporting the agency’s mission and which are ineffective and need to be improved – or perhaps done away with altogether. In doing that, they should draw on existing evidence and data to the extent possible, grounding their analysis in facts rather than opinions, hunches or guesswork. Key related questions include: Which programs are backed by evidence of effectiveness? Which rules and regulations (or, if they exist, waivers implemented during the pandemic) are helping state and local partners succeed, and which create roadblocks to improved results? Which programs would be strengthened with better incentives to use evidence-based approaches?

  • Create a list of what’s not working. After conducting their analysis, career executives should create a list of ineffective or inefficient agency approaches so they’re ready to share it with new leaders, who will, hopefully, be interested in and open to that input. Importantly, new leaders who don’t yet “own” the status quo tend to be more open to dropping what isn’t working. That will be especially true if Joe Biden wins, of course, as his appointees will be looking for ways to undo Trump-administration actions and policy that have proven to be ineffective.

  • Consider ways to propose rebranding or restructuring what is working. Given the realities of politics, just because a program is beneficial doesn’t mean it will survive a leadership transition. To help save what’s working, career staff should consider how to help new leadership rename or improve upon effective policies or initiatives. Again, if Biden wins, that will be especially the case, with career staff likely needing to recommend significant overhauls of any successful initiatives from the previous administration. The bar is always higher to keep programs launched by leaders of a different political party, especially when the parties have such different priorities as they do now.

  • Think about how the presidential candidates’ priorities would affect agency programs going forward. By studying Trump’s and Biden’s campaign themes and promises, career executives can consider how existing policies, programs and initiatives may need to be adjusted to meet a new administration’s goals — or what new efforts will need to be launched. That advance thinking will help those executives be ready, when new leadership arrives, to be trusted advisers and to help steer those leaders toward evidence-based approaches that work.

  • When new leaders arrive, work to build trust with them. Ideally, new political appointees will realize that building productive, trusting relationships with career staff is essential to the appointees’ success, given career staff’s institutional knowledge and expertise. But that shouldn’t be taken for granted, so it’s important for career staff to actively work to build trusting relationships with new leaders. That includes sharing advice on how appointees can improve upon approaches used by previous leaders and providing thoughtful, data-driven guidance on what initiatives should be kept or dropped to help leaders achieve their goals.

In some cases, efforts to save important programs that have been shown to be effective can occur even before a new leadership team arrives. An example occurred at the Education Department near the end of the Obama administration with the pathbreaking Investing in Innovation program, which supported innovative approaches to helping disadvantaged students succeed. With the 2016 presidential election on the horizon, the team at Education – including both political and career staff – knew that the program was at risk if Trump won, since it was so closely associated with the Obama administration. They worked with White House officials and members of both parties in Congress to rebrand the program as Education Innovation and Research and changed its structure slightly. The Trump administration included funding increases for the program in each of its first three annual proposed budgets, which might not have happened if it had continued to be viewed as a signature program of the Obama administration.

Preparing for a potential new set of political appointees is especially important if Biden wins. But whatever the outcome, the election will create windows of opportunity to use evidence and data to help new leaders decide what to keep, what to improve and what to cut. By preparing now to be trusted advisers in that process, career executives can take advantage of a unique period of leadership transition, when disrupting the status quo to improve government performance gets a bit easier. 

Andrew Feldman is a director in the public sector practice at Grant Thornton and also hosts the Gov Innovator podcast. He served as a special adviser on the evidence team at the White House Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration. 

Kathy Stack is an independent consultant. She served for more than three decades in the federal government, including 28 years at the White House Office of Management and Budget.