An Inside Look at How the Partnership for Public Service Helps Build Better Presidential Transitions

October 26, 2020

This week’s episode of Transition Lab features three leaders from the Partnership for Public Service. One is special guest host Loren DeJonge Schulman, a national security expert who spent 10 years at the Defense Department and National Security Council, most recently as the senior advisor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice during the Obama administration. Currently, she serves as the vice president of Research and Evaluation at the Partnership. Joining Schulman is Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and CEO, and David Marchick, director of the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition, who previously held several positions in the Clinton administration and worked as an executive at the Carlyle Group. In this episode, Stier and Marchick discuss the Center’s work, their concerns about the 2020 transition cycle and why transitions have improved in recent years.

Read the highlights:

Max Stier discussed why the Partnership launched the Center for Presidential Transition.

Stier: Transitions were historically Groundhog Day exercises. There was no learning system, no resource that someone could go to and learn how to do this better, [and] no guidebook. …Pretty much every campaign understood that job number one was to win the election [and was] not willing to invest significantly in any effort that jeopardized that work. Campaign leaders would not do transition planning for fear that they would be accused of measuring the drapes.


Stier explained how transitions have improved during recent election cycles.

Stier: Every cycle, the knowledge base has gotten larger and the transition preparation has gotten better. It really begins in 2012 with the Mitt Romney transition. The “Romney Readiness Project” led by Mike Leavitt and Chris Liddell … moved the ball forward in a very dramatic way. …They were willing to raise the flag that [transitions were] something that was not to be done in the dead of the night. …In 2016 we saw not just a single challenger doing this kind of aggressive transition planning, but we saw the entire field thinking about that.


Loren DeJonge Schulman asked about the center’s recent transition work

Stier: We created, with the help of the Boston Consulting Group, a playbook for agencies to understand how they should best prepare. This last cycle, we recognized that there was also a transition that took place between an incumbent president’s first and second term. In each cycle, we build on what we know and help make [transitions] better.

David Marchick: We did a lot of work to understand the change between a first term and a second term. …If you look at the top officials across government, almost half of them half leave between the day the president is sworn in for a second term and six months later. …We’ve [also] had a much more significant public education campaign about the importance of transitions. …This podcast, for example, [has] been downloaded 50,000 times. That’s incredible how kind of a geeky subject like transitions could be of interest to a broader population.


Stier and Marchick discussed their biggest concerns about the current transition cycle.

Marchick: The peaceful transition of power—as [filmmaker] Ken Burns talked about on our podcast—is one of the bedrocks of American democracy. …So, obviously, talk [by President Trump] about not recognizing the will of the American people is troubling. …I’m hopeful that the rhetoric will tone down, but it makes everybody nervous. …[My second worry] is just the small things: will technology work, will security clearances be granted [and] will the Senate be able to act with speed to confirm people.

Stier: The biggest worry for me is making sure that whoever is president next is ready to govern on day one. …The lift is so large that it is scary to think about what’s required. That, to me, is the core issue here: will the next leadership team be ready to address [our] … complex problems immediately?


Stier explained how career employees help ensure smooth transitions.

Stier: We have a government that is largely run and staffed by career professionals. Someone like Dr. [Anthony] Fauci [from the National Institute of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] is a prime example of someone who has spent his career developing an incredible expertise and then serving the public over many, many decades. …The nature of the government’s authority to deal with the problems that we have today requires fewer political appointees, so that we have more expertise in decision-making roles. I think the most important thing that a new political team—or any political team—can do is to connect well with the career workforce.


Marchick described how future administrations might organize better transitions

Marchick: What’s happened with the evolution of the [Presidential Transition Act of 1963]… is that a lot of the post-election activities were moved to pre-election. …I think that more of post-election activities … can be accelerated in the same spirit. I [also] think that there can be more money. Right now, a transition costs somewhere between $8 to $10 million. …Having more money earlier will give the candidates the ability to hire people, give them healthcare and have a professional staff leading up to the election.


Stier outlined some steps that new administrations can take to govern effectively from day one.

Stier: I think investing, first and foremost, in people who understand large organizational management issues [is critical]. …There is a tendency for administrations to bring in lots of smart policy people. They already exist in government. You don’t actually need them. You need people who can deploy the resources—that amazing career workforce— against the problems of the day. Point number two would be to build a relationship very early on with the career workforce—recognizing that it begins the transition [and] that the agency review process is really an onboarding experience for a new administration. Third would be to work across the silos. One of the big issues that exist are that today’s problems don’t respect the legacy lines that make up the formation of our government. Something like the pandemic or any other big issue … actually requires many agencies, a relationship with Congress, inter-governmental activity [and] public-private relationships. And I think that modernizing the rules of government will be fundamental here as well. …The last major reform of [federal] talent rules was over 40 years ago. We still have a pay system that comes from 1949. …We need to truly invest in a more modern government if we’re going to deal with the problems of today and tomorrow.