A trusted partner on presidential transitions
The story of a democratic tradition and the organization working to protect it
For much of history, presidents have had few resources to help them execute the peaceful transfer of power, a cornerstone of American democracy that depends on continuity in the leadership of our federal government, the world’s largest and most complex organization.
With little time to prepare between the election and the inauguration, our nation’s chief executives have entered their first and second terms challenged to implement campaign promises, defend our national security and appoint staff with the expertise to do both while navigating our federal system. Incumbents must also manage the daily pressures of the office as they analyze how to execute a second-term agenda.
Today, this situation looks drastically different thanks to the Partnership for Public Service, which initiated its transition work in 2008, and its Center for Presidential Transition®, founded eight years later as the premier nonpartisan resource for transition planning.
The Partnership and the Center helped shape the modern presidential transition, championing and informing landmark laws, working with agency transition partners to facilitate a smooth transfer of power, and providing candidates and their teams with the guidance and expertise to govern effectively from day one.
“The Center for Presidential Transition is a national treasure. It is the only outfit in America focused 24/7 on transitions and it makes transitions work,” said Ted Kaufman, co-chair of the 2020 Biden-Harris transition team.
Championing landmark legislation
Until recently, presidential candidates feared that transition planning before Election Day would be perceived as “measuring the drapes,” or assuming premature victory.
That began to change in 2010, when the Partnership issued legislative recommendations to codify parts of the 2008 transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.
According Josh Bolten, Bush’s chief of staff, the president instructed him to “make 2008 the best transition possible regardless of who was going to win the election,” with the goal of protecting the country as it managed ongoing terrorist threats and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, Bolten spearheaded what is today termed the “gold standard” of presidential transitions.
To institutionalize this approach, the Partnership advocated for a 2010 update to the 1963 Presidential Transition Act. Authored by Kaufman, the new law allowed campaign teams to access federal funds for preelection transition planning for the first time, destigmatizing early transition work and changing the rhetoric around “measuring the drapes.”
Five years later, the Partnership championed another critical update. Inspired by Kaufman and Michael Leavitt, who headed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s 2012 transition team, the law mandated agencies initiate succession planning, create briefing materials and appoint a senior career official to oversee all transition activities before the election.
In 2011, Congress also enacted the Partnership’s recommendation to reduce the number of Senate-confirmed positions to enable presidents to more quickly fill key leadership positions and start governing from day one.
Since then, the Partnership has become a leading voice on this issue through commentary, congressional testimony and research, creating the first-ever Political Appointee Tracker with The Washington Post and launching Ready to Govern®, an onboarding program that has assisted more than 2,500 incoming appointees since 2013.
“When I served as White House Chief of Staff, there was no playbook for presidential transitions. The Center has filled that void by identifying best practices and providing critically needed support to a broad array of stakeholders.” Josh Bolten Chief of Staff, President George W. Bush; Center Advisory Board
Providing guidance to govern
While transforming the laws around transitions, the Partnership, and its Center for Presidential Transition, have also supported transition teams on both sides of the political aisle, hosting bipartisan meetings where candidates’ teams “leave their swords at the door,” according to Leavitt, and collecting and analyzing scattered government data related to political appointment positions and agency operations to inform transition planning.
In 2020, the Center’s services were critical to navigate a transition littered with unprecedented challenges, including a global pandemic, election disputes that delayed federal transition support for President-elect Biden and a violent insurrection against Congress.
The Biden team drew on the Center’s vast resources, including its Presidential Transition Guide, to prepare for a smooth transition, while Deputy Chief of Staff Chris Liddell, point person for the Trump White House, coordinated with the Center and ensured the administration followed the preelection transition law.
The Center’s data on agency operations, personnel and COVID-19 policies also enabled the Biden transition team to conduct agency review, a process that informs new administrations about agency operations, while information on roughly 4,000 political appointment positions and our analyses of previous confirmation hearings helped the Biden team develop a strategy for staffing leadership positions across government.
These efforts informed Biden’s work to hit the ground running on day one, exemplified by his appointment of more than 1,100 officials on his first day in office. Ready to Serve, which guides nominees through every step of the complex confirmation process, supported these efforts, garnering roughly 200,000 site views from January 2020 to October 2021.
To address the delay in ascertainment, the formal recognition of an election winner by the General Services Administration, the Center also championed bipartisan legislation that requires the release of transition services to both candidates if no clear winner is declared five days after a presidential election, a reform that will ensure electoral disputes do not put the readiness of the next president at risk.
“The Center is a great repository of nonpartisan data and information on what a transition must do, what previous transitions did and what the laws say,” said Cecilia Muñoz, director of domestic and economic policy for the 2020 Biden-Harris Transition Team.
“Well, first and foremost, the institutional knowledge of the Partnership was invaluable throughout the entirety of the transition. And that was particularly true early on. Having access to archived information in one central place to folks who had a lot of expertise in transitions and who had, sort of, aggregated the wisdom of prior transitions [and] put it into a centralized and digestible place—that was hugely valuable.” Yohannes Abraham Executive Director, Biden-Harris Transition Team
Looking toward the future
Today, as it approaches the 2024 transition cycle, the Center is building on its legacy as a trusted partner on transitions. Priorities include advocating for key reforms, like reducing the number of Senate-confirmed appointees, continuing to support transition teams and career civil servants as they plan for the handoff of power, and expanding efforts to prepare incoming leaders to govern effectively—all of which helped to shape and inform the modern presidential transition.
In an era of declining trust in the smooth transfer of power—with nearly one-half of Americans unsure if the transition to a new president in 2024 will be peaceful—the Center’s role remains critical to our democracy.
“Any serious political campaign should work with the Partnership and the Center for Presidential Transition,” said Bolten. “They are the guides you need, and they have no agenda other than making the federal government work better.”