The art of agency review during a presidential transition

September 21, 2020

Agency review—the process of informing new administrations about the work of the federal government’s various departments—is a critical aspect of presidential transition planning. In this episode of Transition Lab, host David Marchick speaks to Lisa Brown, co-chair of agency review for the 2008 Obama-Biden transition team. Marchick and Brown discuss how this process works, why it is so important and the critical role played by career staff.   

Read the highlights:

Marchick asked Brown why agency review is vital to presidential transitions.

Brown: “When [presidents] actually start governing on Inauguration Day, [agency review teams help ensure] they are ready to hit the ground running….The agency teams collect … critical information that the [president-elect] and his or her senior key advisors need to make strategic policy [as well as] budgetary and personnel decisions.…You don’t want gaps when one president leaves and another one comes in….You want to make sure that when the new [administration] comes in, they have the information they need to handle the crisis of the day.”


Marchick asked  why career staff are so important to the agency review process.

Brown: “If you’ve ever worked in the government, you realize how critically important career employees are. They are in these agencies [and] they’re the ones who know how to get things done. You need them to be your friends. You need to be collaborating with them. The worst thing that you could do during agency review is to go in and alienate the career staff because you will find that it is much harder to get things done when you take office.”


Marchick asked  how career staff tend to view agency review teams.

Brown: “I have found that career employees are professionals and they are accustomed to a change in political administration….They care about the mission of their agency. They care about the work that they’re doing. So they do want to partner with you to get that work done.”


Marchick asked Brown about her experience working with the Bush administration in 2008.  

Brown: “President [George W.] Bush and his team in the White House really set the tone … for collaboration. They wanted to ensure that it was as seamless a transition as possible. This was after 9/11, so they had a real sense of responsibility to the country.”


Marchick asked Brown to discuss what she learned from spearheading agency reviews after the 2008 election. 

Brown: “You need to anticipate demand for your work product quite early. The pre-election work that you do is vital….Post-election, you really do want to get people into the agencies very quickly so that you get that information fast to inform policy and to inform the personnel, particularly [during] confirmation hearings….Really think about how [to] best integrate policy teams with the agency review teams….I think you really want people [on the agency review teams] who are … familiar with the president-elect’s policies…..You [also] have to think about [creating] a structure with enough redundancy that your critical work continues … [even if] … somebody [takes on] a new role.” 


Marchick asked Brown to describe how Joe Biden should handle the agency review process if he wins the election, but has an abbreviated transition.

Brown: “[A shorter post-election transition] puts a premium on engaging people who have worked in the government before. That is not to say that you don’t want fresh blood when you actually enter office on nomination day and after … You absolutely want a mix of new people and previous experience….Democrats have been out of power for not yet four years. There’s a lot of knowledge that people have that will still be relevant.”