By Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton

Presidential transitions are a time of great vulnerability for our nation, with a significant turnover in national security personnel occurring when the nation may be facing a foreign policy crisis or an adversary willing to cause significant trouble. Many of the laws and norms that presidential transitions follow today were put in place based on lessons learned in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 

The independent, bipartisan 9/11 Commission, which we headed, examined the transition of power in 2001 from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. We found, among other things, that the Bush administration, like others before it, did not have its full national security team on the job until at least six months after it took office.

Since a catastrophic attack can occur with little or no notice as we experienced on 9/11, we concluded that the government must seek to minimize disruption of national security policymaking during the change of administrations. In exploring this issue, our report made a series of recommendations to protect the nation from national security threats during a presidential transition.

Our proposals were adopted by Congress largely through the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The post 9/11 provisions have been integrated into the process for all transitions since and include:

To be truly effective and help protect our nation from national security threats during and soon after a presidential transition, our outgoing and incoming leaders must be cooperative, take these requirements and best practices seriously, and act in the best interests of the nation.

Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, served as chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

By Livi Logan-Wood and Dan Hyman

The conclusion of the Democratic and Republican national conventions this month mark the official start of the 2020 presidential campaign and a key turning point for transition planning.

According to the Presidential Transition Act, within three days after the last convention ends, the federal government is required to provide presidential transition teams with specific support. By Sept. 1, 2020, the following changes will take place.   

Because President Trump is the incumbent, his administration is not required to create a formal transition team. However, the conclusion of the nominating conventions presents an opportunity for the Trump administration to plan for second term policy and personnel changes.

The next notable transition milestone will be on Oct. 1 when the Trump White House and the Biden-Harris team must reach an agreement that governs how and when transition team members can engage with federal agencies following the November election if the Democrats are successful. This agreement also will include an ethics plan for transition team members.

With the presidential campaign now heading into its final months, the law dictating the beginning of official coordination among the transition team, the current administration and federal agencies is a testament to the importance of a smooth and peaceful transfer of power and for effective presidential transition planning.

By Christina Condreay and Alex Tippett

The winner of this November’s presidential election will face daunting challenges—a devastating pandemic, a major economic crisis, civil unrest stemming from racial inequality and a long list of pressing domestic and national security issues. These are momentous times that accentuate the need for presidential transition planning, whether it’s a first term for Democratic candidate Joseph Biden or a second term for President Donald Trump.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout will impact presidential transition planning in four key areas:

Additionally, a first-term Biden administration will have to consider a fifth area–the preparation for “landing teams” that are deployed by incoming presidential administrations to review agencies operations and policies.

The president’s budget must balance the immediate needs stemming from the pandemic and the economic crisis along with the long-term policy agenda

The president’s budget is an important opportunity to signal the priorities of an administration, shape the congressional debate and shore up alliances.

In 2021, the president’s budget will come on the heels of congressional approval of several trillion dollars in stimulus spending in 2020 and will involve weighing trade-offs between the administration’s long-term policy agenda and the requirements dictated by the current crises. This will necessitate a high-stakes appraisal—the funding choices in this budget could shape the economic and political landscape for the next four years. Due to these challenges, work on the budget should begin early and be given greater attention and resources than in previous election cycles. 

Chris Lu, the executive director of the President Barack Obama’s 2008-2009 transition, said the severe financial crisis occurring when Obama took office pushed many policy concerns “to the backburner.” Transition planners should develop the budget to highlight major policy goals for the year ahead even if the immediate crisis remains the top priority.

Staffing the government during a crisis requires focusing on both immediate needs and second-order issues

Presidents are responsible for appointing about 4,000 officials throughout the federal government. A new president must fill these positions from scratch while second-term presidents often face significant staff turnover. According to previous research by the Partnership for Public Service, the first year of a second term coincides with an average turnover rate of more than 40% for senior leadership positions. Both before and after the Nov. 3 election, it is critical for transition planners to focus on public health and economic policy appointees who will be responsible for overseeing the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the sagging economy.

The specific priority positions will depend on how a new administration structures its response, while a second-term administration may take the opportunity to reshape its efforts. A Cabinet-led response will require the administration to prioritize agency leadership positions while a response driven by the White House will call for a different staffing structure. Transition planners should develop a clear picture of what the post-election COVID-19 response will look like and identify key personnel for this effort.

The pandemic also has created several second-order threats such as increased cybersecurity risks with a remote workforce as well as greater global instability. The next administration should recognize that successfully navigating the current crises will require filling positions without traditional “pandemic-response” roles in agencies throughout the government.

The pandemic also will create operational challenges for presidential appointees. Procedures will have to be developed for previously routine issues, ranging from how to conduct safe and secure briefings with new appointees to the best way to work with a potentially remote Senate. The challenger’s transition team will need to closely coordinate with the General Service Administration (GSA), which provides the transition with office space, IT equipment and other support.

According to Mary Gibert, the federal transition coordinator at GSA, the groundwork for a virtual transition, however, has already been laid. In the last transition, much of the work was already conducted virtually, with many of personnel choosing to work on GSA-provided devices rather than come into the office. “COVID has not impacted our transition planning,” Gibert says. “We haven’t missed a beat. We’ve kept up with all our statutory requirements.”

Those involved in overseeing a second Trump term will have to ensure the Office of Presidential Personnel can ramp up its efforts to meet an expected turnover of political appointees on top of a high level of current vacancies, and determine where it can improve operations and procedures to better deal with the challenges resulting from the pandemic.

Prioritizing key executive actions will advance policy goals

Executive actions are one tool presidents can use to enact significant change–and do so quickly. Effectively using executive orders for achieving policy goals may be more challenging in 2021 because so much attention must be devoted to dealing with the immediate crises. Transition planners for both first- and fifth-year administrations should take time to develop executive orders and anticipate potential operational and legal challenges well before Jan. 20.

First-year administrations face a two-pronged challenge. They must advance the new president’s agenda while evaluating previous executive actions and rules they want to change. This can be a huge undertaking even under normal conditions. Resource constraints created by the pandemic will make it difficult for a new administration to accomplish all its goals. An incoming administration should concentrate on the most critical subset of issues. Doing so will prevent it from spreading itself too thin and increase its chances of success. Historically, there has been a decline in the number of executive orders issued by a president during the fifth year in office compared with the first term. In interviews with the Partnership for Public Service, former senior White House officials suggested the focus on re-election often limits formal planning for a president’s fifth year. If an administration is facing both a crisis and a re-election campaign, as is the case today, developing fifth-year executive orders may well fall to the bottom of the agenda. Investing time and resources in planning an executive agenda now, however, may allow the president to start the fifth year more effectively and set a productive tone for the rest of their presidency.

The White House structure must be equipped to respond to the current and future crises

All presidents seek a White House organizational structure that will lead to a smooth functioning operation and enable them to achieve their key policy priorities. New administrations must create this structure from scratch while a second-term administration has the opportunity to reexamine its White House design and improve areas of weakness. Any such redesign, however, will need to be attuned to the demands of the current crisis.

Different presidents have relied on a variety of organizational structures to address crises. During Harry Truman’s presidency, Congress created the National Security Council in 1947 to help the president coordinate national security policy. In 1993, President Bill Clinton created the National Economic Council by executive order to help coordinate the economic policy-making process and provide economic policy advice.

These entities centralized decision-making and the flow of information. Other presidents have relied on temporary arrangements such as President Obama’s appointment of an Ebola czar in 2014 to coordinate what was then the world’s biggest health threat. This type of temporary structure can be valuable but cannot provide the same institutional knowledge offered by a more permanent organization. Both first- and fifth-year administrations should use the transition period as an opportunity to evaluate the current pandemic response structure and determine if changes are needed. The next administration also should assess how to operate in a partial virtual work environment. A new administration should seek expert guidance and develop contingency plans while the current administration should identify problem areas that need to be resolved. Identifying and resolving these issues long before Inauguration Day will ensure a smooth start for a new administration or lead to improved conditions for a second term. Lessons could be learned from the agencies across government who are currently operating partially or totally virtually. Despite working virtually, agencies like the IRS and FEMA have managed to fulfill their normal mission requirements in addition to the new demands created by COVID-19. A new administration will have to demonstrate a similar level of agility.

A new administration must understand how agencies operate

A new administration must have a thorough understanding of every federal agency’s capabilities and responsibilities. To do this, presidential transition teams traditionally create landing teams that enter agencies following the election and gather relevant information. The roles of various agencies can change rapidly during a crisis. The transition landing teams must flag challenges related to the pandemic so that those issues can be evaluated and resolved.

Landing teams should also map the statutory landscape for each agency. Do agencies have emergency powers they are not taking advantage of? Are agencies exceeding the legal limits of their authority? An incoming administration must be aware of all these issues to mount an effective COVID-19 response. In addition, federal agencies must coordinate with one another, the private sector, state and municipal governments, and international partners during a crisis such as a pandemic. Landing teams should document these relationships so an incoming administration can take immediate control and identify potential pain points that need to be resolved.


Whether it’s a second Trump term or a first term for Biden, our government must be prepared to tackle the pandemic and the nation’s economic problems in addition to the challenges associated with any presidential transition. This will require thorough transition planning that accounts for the uniqueness of the current crises.

By Paul Hitlin

August 18, 2020, will mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote. While this conferred a decisive role for women at the ballot box, it has not yet opened all doors for them to participate in every element of the federal government.

Women have filled many essential jobs, yet there are still important leadership positions that have never been held by a woman. For example, not only has no president or vice president been female, but three Cabinet agencies have never had a woman secretary: the departments of the Treasury, Defense and Veterans Affairs.

The following are 12 important positions in the federal government that have never been filled by a woman.

  1. President – None of the 44 individuals who served as president have been women. Hillary Clinton was the first woman to be nominated by a major political party in 2016.
  2. Vice president – Only two vice presidential nominees of major political parties have been women: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008. Presidential candidate Joe Biden has announced he will select a woman to be his running mate in 2020.
  3. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Twenty men and no women have filled the most senior position in the U.S. armed forces since its creation in 1949.
  4. Chief Justice of Supreme Court Only four justices in the 230-year history of the Supreme Court have been women, and none have been appointed chief justice.
  5. Chief of Staff to the President – Since President Harry Truman appointed the first chief of staff in 1946 – called the assistant to the president at the time – none of the 29 people to hold this position have been women.
  6. Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation – The first leader of the FBI was appointed in 1908, and none of the 20 directors (including those in an acting capacity) have been women.
  7. Director of National Intelligence – All six people to hold the Cabinet-level position since it was created in 2004 have been men.
  8. Director of the National Security Agency – Women have never held the highest-ranking position in the NSA since the intelligence agency was founded in 1952.
  9. Secretary of Defense The Department of Defense has never been led by a woman since its inception in 1947. No woman has been confirmed to be deputy secretary of defense either, although Christine Fox was named acting deputy secretary in 2013.
  10. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was the first in this position in 1789, and none of the 76 secretaries who followed have been women.
  11. Secretary of Veterans Affairs The Department of Veterans Affairs was formed in 1989, and all 10 of the Senate-confirmed officials who led the agency have been men.  
  12. Senate Majority Leader No Senate majority leader has been female since that role was created in 1925. In fact, no Senate minority leader has been a woman during that period either.

This list is not exhaustive. Other important positions such as the NASA administrator and secretary of the Army also have not been held by a woman. Some positions have only had a woman official recently. For example, Gina Haspel became the first female director of the CIA when she was confirmed in 2018.

As the country prepares to mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment, women who have served as leaders of our democracy deserve recognition and appreciation. At the same time, their absence from key positions in government, and thus from critical conversations in domestic and foreign policy, is worth highlighting.

Extensive research indicates diverse and inclusive teams produce better outcomes, and that well-qualified women are ready to lead. While the last 100 years has witnessed some progress, more work needs to be done to ensure the top levels of our government resembles the country it serves. To learn more about the role women have played in national security, listen to our Transition Lab podcast.

By Paul Hitlin

Temporary leaders – commonly referred to as acting officials – have been used by all recent administrations to fill important positions atop federal agencies. Many questions surround their use and power. How long can acting officials serve? Who is eligible? What happens when the time limit for an acting official runs out? Most of the rules are governed by the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998. However, the law gives presidents a fair amount of flexibility and many details are open to interpretation.  

Little research exists on the subject, but a new scholarly article examines the issue in depth and provides important considerations and recommendations. The piece by Anne Joseph O’Connell of Stanford Law School published in the Columbia Law Review includes data from 1981 through President Trump’s third year in office, and discusses many impacts of temporary leadership.

Among the major findings:

O’Connell offers recommendations for clarifying the Vacancies Reform Act.

O’Connell points out that acting officials have become a fixture of modern presidencies despite receiving little attention, and that Congress has abdicated some of its advise and consent role by accepting increased reliance on interim leadership. To balance concerns over accountability and the need for the government to function, O’Connell argues that it is time for Congress to clarify the rules governing the use of acting officials.  

By Jaqlyn Alderete

The Senate now takes 115 days on average to confirm presidential appointees, twice as long as during the Reagan administration.[1] Given the length of time it can take to get nominees confirmed, a new administration or second-term administration must prepare to face the reality of having vacant positions and identify their options for filling those roles.

In the beginning of a new administration, it is common for most presidentially appointed Senate-confirmed positions to be filled by acting officials while the nomination and confirmation process plays out. Second-term administrations typically experience significant turnover in critical leadership roles following re-election. According to the Center for Presidential Transition’s report on turnover during the previous three administrations, 43% of key leadership positions were left vacant within six months of the start of a president’s second term, either by personal choice or because the president wanted a change and fresh ideas. Given the high turnover rate, second-term administrations must plan for how they will fill these roles while waiting for the Senate confirmation process to play out.

The Federal Vacancies Reform Act outlines limitations to who can serve in acting roles and for how long. Under the Vacancies Act, there are three types of officials who may carry out the duties of the vacant position in an acting capacity without Senate confirmation.

  1. The “first assistant,” interpreted to be the top deputy position, becomes the acting officer unless the president designates another individual from the other two eligible classes of officials. The Vacancies Act does not specifically define “first assistant.”
  2. The president may designate an individual who serves in another presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed position elsewhere in the federal government as the acting official.
  3. The president may designate a senior employee of the same agency as the acting official if that person has served in the agency for at least 90 days during the year preceding the vacancy and is paid at a rate equivalent to at least a GS-15.

The Vacancies Act limits an individual serving in an acting role for 210 days. However, this period is lengthened to 300 days if a vacancy exists on the new president’s inauguration day or occurs within 60 days after the inauguration.

While these all are helpful ways to manage vacancies, they are temporary placeholders for long-standing leadership positions, as acting officials lack the authority that comes with a presidential appointment and Senate confirmation process. It is imperative that administrations develop efficient procedures for sending nominees to the Hill and that they prepare to manage vacancies within the limits of the Vacancies Act.

[1] Center for Presidential Transition, “Senate Confirmations Process Slows to a Crawl,” Jan. 2020. Available at

As we mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote, it is clear women have made progress at all levels of government. Officials such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during George W. Bush’s administration, senior advisor Valerie Jarrett during Barack Obama’s administration, and Gina Haspel, CIA director since 2018, have shaped history through their public service.

The past 100 years have also marked a shift in the federal government, with each presidential administration relying more on its advisors, or “A-Team.” Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow of Governance Studies Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, in her new study, “The President’s Advisors: An Analysis of Women on the President’s ‘A-Team’” found that women have made up less than one fourth of this influential group during the past 36 years.

Tenpas quotes presidential scholar Bradley Patterson, who explains the importance of the presidents’ advice-givers. “Staff members have zero legal authority in their own right, yet 100 percent of presidential authority passes through their hands.”

These advisors serve as content filters for the president, informing every decision they make. The team is critically important, but even today, these advisors are overwhelmingly male.

Tenpas analyzes the National Journal’s list of “Decision Makers,” which outlines the most influential members of a president’s team, to create her A-team of the advisory positions that have consistently played a key role in the past five administrations—from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. Here’s what she learned about the A-teams that served from 1981 to 2017:

While women have earned more seats at the table – in 1981, only 5% of Reagan’s A-team members were women versus 34% in 2009 during the Obama administration—Tenpas’ research shows there’s still much progress to be made towards equality.

Though slow progress is better than no progress, women remain dramatically underrepresented in presidential advisory roles. As the presidential candidates consider who will influence their administration beginning in 2021, it’s important that their advisors adequately reflect the country they serve.

By Troy Thomas, Partner and Associate Director, Boston Consulting Group and Dan Hyman, Manager, Center for Presidential Transition

The new edition of the Presidential Transition Guide shows that it is imperative that presidential candidates prioritize the top 100 appointments early in order to get them through the clearance process. It also emphasizes that policy plans should be aligned with the budget and supported by principles of sound management in executing the president’s agenda.

Whether an incumbent is running for a second term or a challenger seeks a first, preparing for the awesome responsibility of governing is an absolute necessity. And it starts months before Election Day. In the past, however, candidates had nowhere to turn for guidance on how to plan their transition.

That changed in January 2016, when the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition and Boston Consulting Group released the Presidential Transition Guide. The guide is a one-of-a-kind resource that offers a “how to” manual on all the key activities required for managing a successful transition. It captures best practices, binding laws and important timelines, along with groundbreaking historical documents from past transition efforts.

The Center and BCG studied multiple transitions dating back to 2000 and incorporated lessons from the 2016 election to create the fourth edition of the guide specifically for the 2020 election cycle. The new edition shows that a second-term administration will experience 43 percent turnover among its most senior officials, and a new president will need to fill more than 1,200 positions with appointees confirmed by the Senate. The new guide makes clear the importance of prioritizing the top 100 appointments early to fill the most important jobs in government.

The fourth edition builds on the work of previous iterations and adds the following new information:

The Presidential Transition Guide is an invaluable tool for teams that are leading transitions as well as for anyone who has an interest in this hallmark practice of American democracy. The Center and BCG are committed to ensuring that no matter who wins in November, the transition to a new presidential term is smooth, safe and effective. 

By Paul Hitlin

As our world becomes increasingly digital with new life-changing innovations on the way, federal agencies will need digital, technological and innovation expertise to provide Americans with necessary services. As the country experiences the widespread outbreak of COVID-19, virtual access to government services is proving more essential than ever.  

The Partnership for Public Service and the Tech Talent Project released a new report today, “Tech Talent for 21st Century Government,” that focuses on how federal agencies can deliver strong policies and services to advance the country’s ability to innovate. The report highlights a subset of key presidentially appointed and senior-level positions critical for driving innovation in government and a need for leaders who understand the link between technology and organizational effectiveness. Any president planning his policy and management agenda must consider the potential to enhance government capabilities with new technologies. 

Built on recommendations from dozens of current and former federal leaders across the political spectrum, the report identifies a subset of critical leadership positions across government and the responsibilities that come with them. The report: 

The White House and agency leaders must build technology-literate leadership teams that set policies for government modernization and provide support government-wide. Ultimately, modern technical expertise is as vital for leaders to have as economic, legal and financial expertise. if we are to create a well-functioning government that works for the people of the United States. 

Download the full report.  

By the IBM Center for Government and the Shared Services Leadership Coalition

One of the first major policy requirements for any new president is to submit a budget proposal to Congress. For recently elected administrations, this budget is usually presented in February—less than a month into a first term—followed by a more detailed request later in the spring. Presidential transition teams often begin preparing their budget proposals before inauguration.

Rising deficits and debt constrain spending and make the budget process increasingly more difficult. As a result, the government needs to find creative approaches to pay for current and future operations, especially with the added pressure created by the recent economic stimulus plan. One option for federal leaders and agencies is to encourage the private sector to invest in modernizing government operations.

To address these challenges, the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Shared Services Leadership Coalition recently released a report, Mobilizing Capital Investment to Modernize Government, which offers strategies federal agencies can use to encourage private investment. The report offers specific recommendations for revising budget and acquisition procedures while abiding by safeguards in appropriations, budget scoring and procurement processes rooted in long-standing policy.

This report also includes expert insights and precedents for applying commercial best practices across government. Among the recommendations:

The report features 10 recommendations for the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration and Congress, and their stakeholders and partners. Leaders who find creative ways to improve the budget process will be better equipped to address important national needs now and moving forward.