A memorandum of understanding (MOU) is needed between the transition team and the White House regarding the transition team’s access to federal agencies. Ideally, this MOU should be negotiated after the party nominating conventions, although it will be signed only after Election Day. For certain agencies, including the Department of Defense, additional MOUs may be needed.
In the words of a senior Bush advisor, the agency review team needs to be seen as “working with” and not “doing to” the agencies. Teams also should view this process as a way to onboard potential new appointees into the agency, but the transition leadership should make it clear that there should be no expectation that agency review team members will be guaranteed positions in the new administration.
Building a spirit of collaboration between the top staff of the outgoing administration and the agency review team is important, and can be accomplished by maintaining professional and courteous relationships. At the same time, if the election has brought a change in the political party in power, incoming teams usually are intent on changing direction and moving quickly, and trust and cooperation may not always be easy.
As was the case in the Romney transition effort, agency review personnel should be trained to approach each agency with respect; to ask questions about the overall functions and mission of the agency and its offices; and to quickly develop collaborative and open working relationships with their agency counterparts. The review teams should have a clear understanding of the major policy priorities of the president-elect and how their particular agency fits into the overall policy platform of the incoming administration. Finally, the agency review teams should collaborate and work closely with one another to share information and learn from one another as well as from their respective agencies.
It is sometimes worthwhile to identify the top-performing political appointees who are carrying out key functions of an office and could be an asset to the incoming administration. This is particularly true for those positions that are considered to be management jobs, such as chief financial officers, assistant secretaries for management and administration, chief acquisition officers and similar positions where management competence is highly important and sometimes hard to find. This could include jobs critical to national, homeland and economic security. Agency review teams working with each major agency are well-positioned to determine whether particular non-career staff members should be invited to stay on temporarily or permanently.
In addition, agency review teams should identify high-performing career employees and those playing critical roles. This will be especially helpful as agencies seek outstanding performers for high-impact roles and to serve as the “bench” of talent that will help minimize the effect of departures by those in appointed positions. Identifying key career staff also will help political leaders build relationships with those employees who will be most critical for implementing the new administration’s policy priorities. By taking this step early, the agency review team can set up the agency’s new political team and the administration for success down the line, and build credibility and goodwill among the career staff. Identifying and developing such staff early through training, and involvement in the decision-making process where appropriate, also will enhance the working relationship between political and career staff and get them further invested in the success of the administration’s agenda.
The final step in the agency review process is to deliver oral briefings to incoming agency heads and White House staff on the key functions of their agency or office, how various offices interact with one another, staff roles, pressing challenges and other “need to know” information. Although much of this information may be included in the agency review reports, having a briefing in person has a much greater impact than simply “throwing the memo over the fence,” as one senior Obama transition staffer put it. The level of detail of these briefings will depend on the seniority and experience of the incoming agency head and should be done as soon as possible. As stated by one agency liaison, the briefings “should not try to tell incoming heads what to do, but should help them do what they want to do.” New agency leaders inevitably will develop their own plans based on their personal expertise and experience, what they learn from the agency review team and other transition team members, and their understanding of the new president’s goals and expectations for the agency. The role of the transition team is to help agency leaders identify the issues, problems and opportunities they should prepare to address.