Getting presidential transitions right

Getting presidential transitions right
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Should Joe BidenJoe BidenBriahna Joy Gray: White House thinks extending student loan pause is a 'bad look' Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Former New York state Senate candidate charged in riot MORE be declared the winner in the 2020 election, Americans are right to be worried about whether President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York state Senate candidate charged in riot Trump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report GOP senator clashes with radio caller who wants identity of cop who shot Babbitt MORE will accept the election results and begin a transition to a new Biden administration.  

Trump’s indifference, if not hostility, toward transitions is well-known. In November 2016, career staff and Obama political appointees in the departments waited for Trump’s transition representatives to arrive so they could start briefing them about how to actually run the government. Eventually, they realized there would be little in the way of a collaborative handoff. 

But even under the best of circumstances, presidential transitions fall short of the ideal of a seamless transfer of government functions that most Americans want and expect.    

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Transition team members arrive in federal departments and agencies once the presidential election is decided (assuming they are allowed in.) Most of them will return to their jobs in law and lobbying firms, think tanks, NGOs and private industry well before Inauguration Day. They will do so without ever meeting most of the new president’s appointees, who will report for work at their new jobs long after the transition team has departed.  

In other words, while transition representatives may work for two months gathering insights and information about such matters as pending statutory deadlines, budgets, programs, organizational challenges and personnel, they will generally have little or no contact with the people whom the new president appoints to run things. Some of their work may eventually find its way to the appointees, but most of it will end up in three-ring binders gathering dust in a government warehouse.

Even cabinet nominees receive little benefit from the transition teams’ departmental reviews. Why? Most of them are too busy preparing for their Senate confirmation hearings — by far their highest priority — to spend much time sitting through transition briefings.  

Some of the most important meetings new political appointees should have are with those who held their jobs in the outgoing administration. Yet those meetings usually don’t happen because, by the time they arrive, their predecessors are long gone.    

All this leaves cabinet members and other political appointees mostly in the hands of career staff, who want to be helpful if given a chance, which they sometimes are not.

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We can do better. The presidential transition process at departments and agencies needs to be overhauled, and here are a few ways to start:

Transition team members need to know something about the work (and workings) of the departments to which they are assigned. Surprisingly, they often do not. To minimize both the reality and appearance of conflicts-of-interest, transition team members should be required to take a leave of absence from their employers. They should be paid and they should be subject to a code of ethics.

They should show respect for the missions and cultures of the organizations they are examining and engage collaboratively with career civil servants. If outgoing appointees are still around, they should be treated respectfully too. They may well have good advice, but they often won’t offer it unless asked. To serve a new president best, transition team members must check any “conquering hero” attitude at the door.

Transition staff should embed; that is, even in this extreme telework period they should move  into the departments (with appropriate social distancing) they are examining. In most cases, the Trump 2016 “landing teams” never did. In addition to what transition teams learn from dozens of staff interviews and meetings, some of the most useful ideas and information will be gained informally. 

They should remain available until well after Inauguration Day, so they can assist with the briefing, orientation and handoff to new appointees, many of whom will have never previously set foot in their departments.  

Congress should conduct oversight following every transition. What worked and what did not is always a question worth asking. There will be a next time.

Presidential transitions are exciting, tumultuous and important for achieving a smooth hand-off of the management reins of government. They also set the tone of a new administration, including its attitude toward the career civil servants and the missions they carry out day-to-day.  

The challenge is to ensure that new cabinet members and other senior appointees are as prepared as they can be to assume their new management responsibilities. With some basic reforms, transitions can serve new presidents and the nation a whole lot better than they do.

Elgie Holstein was a member of the Obama presidential transition team, and was co-director of the Department of Energy review team. He is former DOE chief of staff.