CBS’ Margaret Brennan and former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during the Center for Presidential Transition 2024 kickoff.
January 31, 2024

Getting by with a little help from your friends: how outside groups support presidential transitions

Given the incredible complexity of managing the federal government, new presidents have found outside think tanks and other organizations to be helpful partners as sources of expertise, personnel and broad perspectives.

The short-lived and hectic sprint of a campaign leaves little time for presidential candidates to master the details of the job. However, nongovernmental organizations hold reserves of institutional knowledge and can fill in gaps to help a new administration prepare for office.

Since 2008, the Center for Presidential Transition has been one of these groups. As a nonpartisan entity pursuing better government and stronger democracy, we provide resources to all presidential candidates preparing for a first or second term. We do not advise candidates on the substance of policies, only on best practices to enact them and create an effective, well-run administration.

Since standing up in 2008, the Center has supported  the leading presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle with resources such as the Presidential Transition Guide, Agency Transition Guide, and Ready to Govern content to prepare for their potential administrations. Other groups, including the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and the White House Transition Project, also provide nonpartisan analysis and resources. Nonpartisan organizations resist the partisanship that frames so much conversation about government and offer clear-eyed best practices for the most effective operation of the executive branch. 

Other groups help with the “what” of governing in addition to the “how.” Many of these organizations have a perspective, and any administration will gravitate to ones that align with their political goals. Previous presidents recruited personnel and policy from these groups to great effect.

For example, the Heritage Foundation produced its first “Mandate for Leadership” in 1981 and the Reagan administration implemented nearly two-thirds of its 2,000 policy recommendations, with Reagan crediting Heritage as a “vital force” in his presidency’s successes. Heritage released the ninth edition of its “Mandate for Leadership” in 2023.

Later, the Obama administration took into account the work of two newer think tanks, the Center for a New American Security and the Center for American Progress, both of which were founded by alumni of previous Democratic administrations. They adopted ideas and recruited personnel from these organizations: the Wall Street Journal called CNAS a “top farm team” for his administration and CAP was cited as “Obama’s idea factory.”

This election cycle, a few new groups are promoting both policies and transition planning. Recent headlines have made much of their existence, but these are not the first groups to prepare policy for a prospective administration.

Voters choose which specific path they wish the government to take, but the task of enacting campaign promises deserves significant and thoughtful preparation by candidates – both by an incumbent seeking re-election and by the challenger. No matter who wins the election, the public interest requires thoughtful advance planning on policy, personnel and management issues, and that all parties follow law and tradition to ensure a smooth and peaceful transfer of power.

Featured image: CBS’ Margaret Brennan and former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during the Center for Presidential Transition 2024 kickoff event.

Mary Monti