Center Blog

9 Ways for a New Administration to Build an Effective Team

April 20, 2016

Matt Sanford, Fellow, Partnership for Public Service

“People are policy” is a political adage stretching back 50 years. It holds true today. The people appointed by a new president carry out administration priorities, shepherd change and deliver on campaign promises. It’s essential that presidential transition teams prepare well to make those appointments—and the earlier the better.

Based on what we’ve learned about political appointments from past presidential transitions, here are nine ways to get your team-building started.

The Pre-Election Four

  1. Know the Goal. The sole purpose of the appointments team is to select, vet and secure the confirmation of presidential nominees. Before the August recess of 2017, the president should have 400 Senate-confirmed appointees in office.
  2. Start Early. Without an early start, an incoming administration cannot easily hope to have an effective team in place and be ready to govern on Day One. This means starting well before the election to identify potential appointees and begin to vet them for public service. To make sure that the appointments team can accomplish all its objectives before the inauguration, the transition chair should select the head of appointments by the end of April of the election year.
  3. Keep it Secret, Keep it Safe. It could be politically damaging for transition teams if news about who is being vetted for certain positions leaks out. Even though the transition team will be housed in space provided by the General Services Administration, the team can and should keep its vetting information confidential and secure. The 2012 Romney transition appointments team opted to store its vetting information on a computer system with limited access, even to other members of the campaign. This was colloquially called the “bunker.”
  4. Have the Same Person Lead from Beginning to End. Having a single person responsible for personnel and a well-documented and clear process will be advantageous for a new administration. Most transition appointments teams are headed by a single person from beginning to end. The presidential campaign of John McCain, for example, selected Russell Gerson to run his appointments process in late June 2008. Gerson also committed to serving for at least one year as the head of the Office of Presidential Personnel. On the other hand, for a variety of reasons, the Obama transition had several successive leaders of the appointments team. Presidential transition scholar Martha Kumar argues that “it benefits an incoming president to have one person lead the process for an extended time.” Some believe the turnover in Obama’s personnel operation slowed down the selection and vetting of potential nominees.
  5. Keep Momentum Post Election Using These Five Lessons

  6. Move the Appointments Team into PPO. After the election, the appointments team functions similarly to the White House Office of Presidential Personnel. Both organizations need to be aligned with the president’s preferences for appointments and must be able to balance competing pressures from a variety of stakeholders. For simplicity’s sake, previous transition teams have put the team’s head of appointments in charge of PPO right after the inauguration.
  7. Beware the Data Transfer. During the move from the campaign to the White House, the appointments team will transfer records and necessary material from the transition to the White House personnel office. The transfer of this information can be difficult if the transition team has not built a data system that is compatible with the one used by the incumbent administration. Both the 2008 Obama and 2012 Romney transition teams anticipated this data transfer challenge. After the 2008 election, the Obama transition realized that the system used to manage hundreds of thousands of job applicants was not secured to the White House standards. In 2012, the Romney transition built a personnel management system that no one was sure would integrate into the one used by Obama White House. Had Romney won the 2012 election, his transition team could have been forced to redo a great deal of human resource work. New legislation can help avoid problems. Read number 7 below.
  8. Know Who Can Help. The General Services Administration can help the appointment team bridge the gap between the campaign and the White House. GSA is responsible for providing technical and administrative support to the transition teams. Keeping GSA abreast of the needs of the appointments team is necessary for those needs to be adequately met. Of particular interest to the appointments team is the assistance that GSA can provide during the handoff between the campaign and the Office of Presidential Personnel. In the recently enacted Presidential Transition Improvements Act of 2015, the GSA is responsible for providing transition teams, “to the greatest extent practicable, human resource management system software compatible with the software used by the incumbent President and likely to be used by the President-elect and Vice President-elect.” GSA is statutorily authorized to help the transition team create or access the human resources software similar used by the incumbent administration.
  9. Stay Coordinated with the Campaign. Transition teams should make every effort to use the same contractors and vendors as the campaign. Using the same vendors prevents the transition team form duplicating some of the work that the campaign has already done in establishing systems. The procedure also leads to better outcomes. The importance of continuity between campaign and transition is particularly conspicuous when it comes to web development. After the election, Obama’s campaign web platform became and included additional functionality specific to the transition and new administration, such as a link to the personnel database used to process job applications. In 2012, the Romney Readiness Project was equipped with a website for the day after the election, but its system took a long time to build because the transition team did not adequately coordinate with the campaign.
  10. Get Ready for the Resumes. In addition to moving existing personnel information into the PPO system, the post-election transition team must cope with the influx of people who are interested in working in public service. During the 2008 transition, President-elect Obama’s transition team received hundreds of thousands of resumes from people seeking jobs in the new administration. Incoming teams need to have a strategy and mechanism for accepting those applications. The Obama team coped with the flood by coordinating with the campaign, which already had a developed digital presence.

Need more ideas and tools to help with transition planning? See the Presidential Transition Timelines and download the Center’s comprehensive Presidential Transition Guide.


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