Getting the next president off to a running start
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The first hundred days are high stakes for a new president, serving as a barometer by which to measure the rest of his or her time in office. However, early success in the White House is often determined before the new president even sets foot in the Oval Office. Failure to begin the transition process early and establish a robust management plan can not only hinder a new president's ability to accomplish policy objectives, but can also have serious economic and national security consequences.

Managing a leadership transition for the world’s largest enterprise — the U.S. government — is more complex than even the largest private-sector mergers. The federal government consists of hundreds of agencies that spend some $4 trillion annually. When two big firms merge, top positions usually are filled by employees from one company or the other. When a new administration takes over, it typically cleans house.

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The new president has 4,000 top positions to fill, a quarter of which require Senate approval. The confirmation process has grown more cumbersome in the last 30 years and it now takes, on average, seven months to confirm a first-time nominee. By the August recess of their first terms, both the Bush and Obama administrations had only filled 30 percent of the more than 1,100 positions requiring Senate approval. This represents a tremendous missed opportunity given that a President’s political capital typically peaks during the first year after election.

As a result, the world's leading superpower historically has suffered from a significant leadership void during most of a president's first year in office, hindering the ability of a new administration to implement top policy priorities and respond to major economic and security challenges.

The good news is that it is possible to avoid such pitfalls and facilitate a smooth handoff of power. Our extensive work on large corporate mergers and our recent collaboration with the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service show how.

First, it’s important for transition officials to begin their work early. The delayed confirmation process is not only a function of the Senate. New presidents typically are ready to submit only a few candidates for confirmation on Inauguration Day. Transition officials should be ready to submit at least 100 nominations by Inauguration Day.

The broader goal should be to have the 500 most critical appointments approved by the Senate by August of 2017. The more candidates vetted and ready for nomination by January 20, the more quickly the new president will be able to fill key positions and staff the new administration. 

Another key to success is clarifying goals. Successful transition teams don’t operate in a vacuum. They document the major policy objectives of their candidate, identify the agencies that will play a role in carrying them out, and identify the candidates for the most critical jobs in those agencies. Following the election, they work swiftly to place transition personnel within key agencies, coordinating as much as possible with the outgoing administrations to ensure that the agencies are prepared to move forward with a new agenda as quickly as possible.

Also critical is a proper talent search. Traditionally, transition teams turn to trusted advisors, trade and professional associations, and public interest groups to identify nominees for key agency positions. This often results in long lists of individuals who share the president-elect's views, but may not be well suited to the critical roles government appointments would require of them.

Instead, presidential transition teams should take a page from the corporate world’s best human resources playbook and first establish the technical, policy, and leadership requirements for all appointed positions, then look for candidates that meet those qualifications. This should result in appointees who are better qualified, more effective, and — potentially — more easily confirmed.

In the end, presidential transitions are not just about intense staffing. They’re about rapidly building a cohesive organization that can meet an ambitious set of objectives in a very short amount of time. This requires shared values, a common vision, clear communications, proper governance structures, roadmaps for achieving priorities, and milestones for measuring progress.

All of these elements are best put in place before the new president takes office.

Sharon Marcil is a Washington, DC-based senior partner of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and leader of the firm’s public sector practice in the Americas. Meldon Wolfgang is a senior partner in the firm’s Boston office.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill