October 22, 2020

Tips for Federal Agencies When Creating Transition Briefing Materials

By Dan Hyman, Troy Thomas and Catherine Manfre

With less than two weeks until Election Day, much of the nation’s attention is focused on the presidential campaigns. Behind-the-scenes, however, career civil servants are quietly preparing for a potential transition and a turnover of political appointees.

According to the federal transition law, agencies are required to complete three major tasks prior to Election Day:

  • Submit updated lists of politically-appointed positions to the Office of Personnel Management for compilation in the 2020 Plum Book
  • Create a succession plan for senior leadership positions by September 15. 
  • Compile agency briefing materials by November 1 to assist new administration officials or second-term leadership. 

To date, more than 140 agencies have teams of career employees leading this transition work. Since May, the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration have convened leaders from these teams to coordinate transition activities and facilitate the sharing of best practices.

Agencies have met the first two milestones and are working to complete their briefing materials by the November 1 deadline. In their simplest form, the briefing materials are like an “Agency 101” of the key facts, figures and issues. They enable new leadership to get up to speed quickly so they can hit the ground running.

Four tips to maximize the effectiveness of agency briefing materials

While federal law requires agency transition teams to “create briefing materials related to the presidential transition that may be requested by eligible candidates,” it does not specify what contents should be included. Based on guidance issued by OMB and GSA, as well as best practices from past transitions, the following tips will help agencies maximize the effectiveness of their briefing materials.

Tip one: Provide a baseline understanding of the agency

Recipients of briefing materials – whether they are transition review teams for an incoming first-term administration or newly appointed leadership for a second-term administration – will have varying degrees of familiarity with the agency prior to arriving. Some may have prior experience with the agency (though it is likely dated), while others could be experts in the policy area. These materials must provide readers with the agency’s full background and current context, including at a minimum:

  • Organizational charts that include key positions. 
  • Recent budget history and a current budget proposal. 
  • Top issues and challenges. 
  • Congressional oversight committees and issues. 
  • Impact of COVID-19 on the agency’s priorities and internal operations. 

Tip two: Be succinct

Agencies should focus on the top issues and the most relevant data. Recipients of briefing materials are busy individuals who may not have time to read lengthy reports. Many agencies have begun streamlining information to make it more digestible. During the 2016-17 transition, the Department of Defense created a series of one- and two-page papers on the top five to 10 priority issues they believed were most important to newcomers.

Tip three: Include key insights

The best materials go beyond agency statistics and conventional issues to provide insights into the challenges and opportunities facing new leaders. During the 2016-17 transition, the FBI linked its bureau’s locations with a list of threats to national security. They also created a map pinned with color-coded offices according to the year they opened. The visual representation of the bureau’s newest locations generated conversations on where emerging threats were located.

Key insights should include:

  • The parts of the agency’s budget that have been most impacted by the pandemic. 
  • Significant changes in workforce demographics, such as the retirement of baby boomers and the number of employees eligible for retirement. 
  • The agency’s current top priorities. 

Tip four: Take advantage of digital formats

Historically, the briefing materials have been produced as reports in thick binders. However, digital versions make it easier to distribute to the intended recipients, especially now when so many federal officials and transition leaders are working remotely.

Creating succinct, comprehensive and informative briefing materials is a federal agency transition team’s most significant task. To learn more about briefing materials and other aspects of the federal agency transition process, check out our 2020 Agency Transition Guide. For additional information on the transition process as a whole, see our 2020 Presidential Transition Guide and visit the Boston Consulting Group’s transition homepage.

Dan Hyman is a manager at Center for Presidential Transition. Troy Thomas is a partner and associate director of the Boston Consulting Group and Catherine Manfre is a principal of Boston Consulting Group.