Whoever Wins the Election, There Will Be a Transition

A veteran of previous transitions offers program implementation strategies for a new administration—whether that’s Trump’s 2nd term or a Biden presidency.

In anticipation of the forthcoming presidential transition, I find myself recalling the Cole Porter song “Another ‘Op’nin,’ Another Show” from the 1948 musical “Kiss Me Kate.” Presidential transitions are indeed the prelude to the opening of another show when a new administration assumes the challenge of governing—that’s true whether the president is actually new or returning for a second term. Since coming to Washington in 1975 as a young professional, the 2020 transition will be the 12th transition I have observed. It is an exciting and energizing 13 weeks. 

Over the past 45 years, I have participated in preparing numerous management recommendations for presidential transitions. (I wish I had $20 for each of those recommendations to add to my grandkid’s college funds.) Most of these focused on what government should do. Some were adopted, some were rejected, some were ignored.  

In thinking back on those recommendations, I am struck as to how few of them focused on implementing policy—how government should undertake a new policy. The success of new policies largely depends on the success of developing an implementation strategy, which all too often is missing. While I have no doubt that policy proposals will be abundant during the next 13 weeks, I am less confident about the plans for bringing those policies to fruition. 

Strategies for Success

The strategies presented below are primarily focused on improving management. The initiatives include a variety of activities, from comprehensive legislative reform packages (such as the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act) to individual agency improvement plans (not requiring legislation or executive orders). Management reform can mean many different things to different people. A new administration will need to sort out these concepts by evaluating different implementation strategies.  

Implementation Decision One: Should we do “one big thing?” Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, there is a strong case to be made for strengthening the federal government’s ability to more effectively respond to the pandemic and to implement the distribution of a forthcoming vaccine. The new administration will have to evaluate and improve the capability of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration for starters. Given the bandwidth of a new administration, improving government’s pandemic response capability may be enough to take on during the first year of the administration.  

In the past, the “one big thing” implementation approach has been in response to a national crisis. In response to 9/11, the George W. Bush administration focused on improving the federal government’s ability to combat terrorism and future terrorist attacks. The response included the creation of the Homeland Security Department, truly a “big thing.” 

Implementation Decision Two: Should we create a large scale management improvement initiative? There are three examples of this approach in the past seven administrations. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter launched the “Presidential Reorganization Project.” Teams of political appointees and career civil servants were created to develop reorganization proposals. The initiatives resulted in the creation of two new cabinet departments—Energy and Education—and the Office of Personnel Management (which was also part of the administration’s Civil Service Reform project).

In 1982, President Reagan created the Private Sector Survey on Cost Control (PSSCC), more commonly known as the Grace Commission. The Commission consisted of private sector volunteers, “donated” by their companies, who were organized into departmental teams. No civil servants were assigned to the Commission. The “job” of civil servants was to answer questions and provide materials to the private sector volunteers. (To some civil servants, the Commission had the feel of a mild-mannered Inquisition.)

In 1993, President Clinton created the National Performance Review. Unlike the Grace Commission, NPR consisted of career civil servants assigned to work on NPR’s various work groups. At its peak, NPR consisted of around 250 civil servants. Under the direction of then Vice President Gore, NPR (later renamed the National Partnership for Reinventing Government) continued throughout the entire Clinton administration and implemented many of its recommendations over their seven years.    

Implementation Decision Three: If we decide not to do one big thing or to create a large scale management initiative, how can we improve the operations of government? Perhaps the most worthwhile undertaking by a presidential transition team is to inventory the wide array of existing “tools” already in place throughout government, which can undertake new management initiatives. Prime candidates for use by a new administration is the President’s Management Agenda, which includes Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) Goals (required by law). While there is always a tendency to throw out anything in place from prior administrations, the President’s Management Agenda and CAP Goals have become institutionalized and a norm has been established to keep these institutions in place and to use them. 

In addition to the PMA and CAP Goals, there are numerous government councils, through which the administration can work to advance its goals. There is the President’s Management Council (consisting of Deputy Secretaries), the Chief Information Officers Council, the Chief Financial Officers Council, and the Chief Acquisition Officers Council, to name a few. These councils, which provide continuity between administrations, can be used to implement policy proposals to improve management in government. 

Implementation Decision Four: How do we respond to the need for quick legislative “fixes”?  There is a growing movement in Congress (also reflected in Biden position papers) to respond to the many weaknesses found during the Trump administration in the plethora of oversight and administrative laws now in place. Prime candidates for revising/updating include the Inspector General Act, the Vacancy Act, the Hatch Act, and Ethics in Government Act, to name just four laws in need of revision.

During the early days of an administration, the full team of political appointees is not yet in place and career civil servants are occupied by their daily business as well as orienting their new political bosses. Instead of overloading the existing workforce, a new administration can create SWAT teams totally dedicated (with no additional responsibilities) to revising existing legislation. These SWAT teams can be staffed by detailees from agencies and temporary hires.   Such SWAT teams can give additional bandwidth to a new administration without overwhelming the new team and the career civil service. 

The most important takeaway for transition leaders is that you will need an implementation strategy. Welcome to another op’nin, another show!

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His most recent book is Government for the Future: Reflection and Vision for Tomorrow’s Leaders (with Daniel J. Chenok and John M. Kamensky). His email address is