Wednesday, May 11, 2016
There is one action that can have more impact than any other –early and effective transition planning

Blog Co-Author:  Alan Howze, Fellow

In a previous blog, we outlined recommendations for how the next administration can get a fast start with sure footing. From strengthening the President’s Management Council, to setting up a triage system for regulatory review, the blog identified actions that can help jump-start the administration. However, there is one action that can have more impact than any other –early and effective transition planning.

But what should transition teams focus on? What do past transition efforts tell us about ways to improve? How can transition teams fashion a management agenda that supports the implementation of campaign commitments and improves the operations of government?

The IBM Center for The Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service co-hosted a roundtable earlier this year to discuss how transition teams can operate most effectively - in-service of helping the next administration get a fast start on sure footing. The roundtable brought together current and former senior officials from Administrations of both parties, as well as experts from academia and the private and non-profit sectors. Out of the discussion emerged actions that transition teams can take to increase the likelihood of a successful first year. 

The roundtable was the final in a series of seven as part of our “Management Roadmap” effort, a Ready to Govern (#Ready2Govern) initiative through the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition. The Center seeks to improve the transfer of power and knowledge between administrations. These roundtables addressed the critical importance of strong leadership (along with a related report on Executive Talent)  the need for agency-specific and governmentwide approaches (read report on Enterprise Government), and the challenge of decision-making (read full report) in a time of transition.

The recommendations from the roundtable were clustered around three dimensions – people, structure and process.


          •        Set up the transition personnel operation with the explicit understanding that key members of the leadership team will transition into the Presidential Personnel Office. Continuity in the appointee selecting and vetting operation is critical to getting the administration fully staffed in the first year.

          •        Identify an experienced management executive who is close to the President (i.e. has their confidence) and bring them into the transition team early.

          •        Communicate how personnel selections will be made –will the White House select and place all people? Will Cabinet and agency leaders select appointees within their areas? Will there be block placement of certain functions such as CFOs? Or will a combination of these approaches be used? This is an important decision point for the transition team – and should be made early.

          •        Align selection of personnel to a robust process for identifying the needs within agencies, across leadership teams, and in alignment with administration priorities.  Personnel selection is a multi-dimensional Rubix cube – but it should start with clarity around what skills the position demands.

          •        Select individuals to be on leadership teams. High-performing teams have a mix of skills. Transition personnel should look at appointee selection through the lens of team formation. For example, attendees noted that Deputy Secretaries are the Chief Operating Officers for departments. When Deputy Secretaries are chosen for their policy expertise or to be “Secretaries in waiting,” the opportunity can be missed to use the role to create balanced leadership teams that can effectively operate departments and implement policy priorities.

          •        Consider selecting the OMB Deputy Director for Management during the transition – and having that person in charge of developing a management agenda to roll out at the start of the administration. 

          •        Create a pre-populated pool of vetted candidates from which appointees can be selected. This could significantly speed up the time it takes to get appointees into place.

          •        Identify potential roles and people that the new administration will ask to hold-over. Appointees noted that several Bush appointees were held over to help deal with the 2008-2009 financial crisis until the new team could be put into place. 


          •        The structure and operations of the transition team should reflect how the administration wants to govern. Making the shift from transition to White House more seamless can decrease churn in the opening days of an administration – when the President’s influence is at its peak.

          •        Prior to the election, determine the roles, responsibilities and lines of communication between the transition team and the campaign staff. Consider how campaign staff will be integrated into the transition operation after the election. The campaign / transition relationship can be fraught with tension and so needs to be managed carefully.

         •        Set up a team to focus specifically on the regulatory review process. Regulatory actions are a critical part of any administration. Attendees advised transitions to create a team to design a regulatory review function that allows non-controversial regulatory actions to proceed while also achieving priority goals and preventing unwanted regulatory actions.

          •        Set up a team to focus on creating an enterprise approach to governing - AND – dual-hat members of that team with other policy teams so that the enterprise perspective gets incorporated into implementation plans across a range of policy areas. Cross-agency approaches can yield more effective methods to solving difficult challenges. Conducting policy implementation planning in the transition with an enterprise perspective will increase the likelihood of success.

          •        Create intra-transition team linkages between personnel and policy. Better information flow within the transition teams can improve the selection of appointees by better aligning position needs with potential candidates.

          •        Deputies are critical to making transition teams function effectively. The deputies of the various teams (policy, personnel, etc.) make the trains run on time and should be selected carefully. Attendees suggested creating a deputies council in a transition to improve cross-team information flow and overall coordination.


          •        Develop management principles that can frame a detailed management agenda to be rolled out early in the administration. Getting a fast start on management can drive improvements across all four (or eight) years of the administration, which can provide benefits in a number of ways – with policy implementation, operationally, and politically.

          •        Set up decision-making processes during the transition. Think through how to approach routine (e.g. budget) and non-routine (e.g. crisis) decisions during the transition.

          •        Harness existing process and tools – such as the budget, cross-agency priority goals, acquisition and financial management cycles, etc – to implement priorities. Roundtable attendees advised transition leaders to spend more time thinking about how to implement priorities using existing processes than how to change processes and organizational structures.

These recommendations and more emerged from the discussion with the exceptional group assembled at the roundtable, and we are grateful for their insights and willingness to share their experiences across administration and parties. These actions – and recommendations from previous roundtable and reports – can help a new administration get a faster start and be more effective in implementing their priorities.