Center Blog

President Obama Kicks Off Transition Planning with Executive Order

May 16, 2016

Alan Howze, Senior Advisor, Partnership for Public Service

The release of President Obama’s executive order “Facilitation of a Presidential Transition” on May 6, 2016, came six months before the election, 259 days before the presidential inauguration, and marked the formal beginning of the transition of power by the White House and the federal agencies.

As the beneficiary in 2008 of what has been described as the smoothest transition in history, President Obama’s order signals his intent to pay it forward with his own administration’s preparations. The executive order follows the precedent of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who both issued their own transition planning guidance, and reflects Obama’s experience conducting a transition during active military conflicts, and in the midst of the 2008-09 financial crisis.

This year, the effort will benefit from legislation signed into law in March that establishes a legal baseline for transition planning. The need for such advanced planning also has received increased attention as the magnitude and importance of the task—and the risks from doing it poorly—have been illuminated.

Two Tiers of Transition Preparation

President Obama’s executive order sets up a two-tiered system of preparation.

The first is the establishment of the White House Transition Coordinating Council, chaired by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, and mandated by the new transition law. The council will set overall policy and levels of engagement with the campaign transition teams. The council will provide guidance on White House specific transition activities, such as presidential personnel, and coordinate national security and economic policy preparations.

This council will consist of senior White House personnel, including officials from the Presidential Personnel Office, and leaders with expertise in national security and economic policy. Other council members will include the federal transition coordinator, representatives from OMB and GSA, and an individual from each candidate’s transition team. The council will:

  • Provide guidance on the administration’s transition activities, including succession planning and briefing materials
  • Set the rules of engagement between the administration and the candidate’s transition teams
  • Conduct tabletop exercises on emergency response

The second element of administration’s transition initiative involves the Agency Transition Directors Council, which will be co-chaired by the federal transition coordinator, GSA senior career executive Tim Horne, and the OMB deputy director for management. This council also was created by the new law. This council will include senior career executives from each CFO Act agency, representatives from the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Government Ethics, the National Archives and Records Administration, other agencies leaders selected by the co-chairs. A member from each of the presidential transition teams will also be invited to attend council meetings.

The Agency Transition Directors Council is tasked with:

  • Creating an interagency strategy for transition preparation, including career succession planning
  • Providing guidance to agencies on the preparation of briefing materials for the incoming administration that must be prepared no later than November 1
  • Ensuring agencies prepare career officials who are placed into acting leadership positions during the transition

Succession and Transition Leadership

With a focus on succession planning and preparation of acting leaders, the executive order emphasizes the importance of career leadership during the transition, and makes mention of the potentially important role of the President’s Management Council in fulfilling agency transition activities.

In a nod to the work of outside organizations, including the Partnership for Public Service (which has led the push for more rigorous transition planning), the National Academy of Public Administration and the IBM Center for the Business of Government, the executive order green-lights the White House council to speak with outside individuals and organizations that have expertise in transition.

The order is relatively silent on the meeting tempo for the councils. It reflects the legislative requirement that the Agency Transition Directors Council form at least six months prior to the election, and says that the White House council shall meet “on a regular basis as necessary.”

The release of President Obama’s executive order sets into motion the next stage of transition planning—which many agencies have already begun—and provides the framework under which planning will be conducted.

The president’s guidance is the latest in what has been a series of encouraging signs from all parties in the transition dance—campaigns, the outgoing administration and agencies, and the media. So while the campaign season continues to roil and churn, the transition process is well underway—with benefits to the next president and to the nation.


Related: Obama Administration Focuses Last Budget To Help New Administration


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