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.
By Christina Condreay and Alex Tippett
The winner of this November’s presidential election will face daunting challenges—a devastating pandemic, a major economic crisis, civil unrest stemming from racial inequality and a long list of pressing domestic and national security issues. These are momentous times that accentuate the need for presidential transition planning, whether it’s a first term for Democratic candidate Joseph Biden or a second term for President Donald Trump.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout will impact presidential transition planning in four key areas:
- Planning a budget and policy agenda.
- Making priority appointments to top federal jobs.
- Developing executive actions.
- Creating the White House organizational structure.
Additionally, a first-term Biden administration will have to consider a fifth area–the preparation for “landing teams” that are deployed by incoming presidential administrations to review agencies operations and policies.
The president’s budget is an important opportunity to signal the priorities of an administration, shape the congressional debate and shore up alliances.
In 2021, the president’s budget will come on the heels of congressional approval of several trillion dollars in stimulus spending in 2020 and will involve weighing trade-offs between the administration’s long-term policy agenda and the requirements dictated by the current crises. This will necessitate a high-stakes appraisal—the funding choices in this budget could shape the economic and political landscape for the next four years. Due to these challenges, work on the budget should begin early and be given greater attention and resources than in previous election cycles.
Chris Lu, the executive director of the President Barack Obama’s 2008-2009 transition, said the severe financial crisis occurring when Obama took office pushed many policy concerns “to the backburner.” Transition planners should develop the budget to highlight major policy goals for the year ahead even if the immediate crisis remains the top priority.
Presidents are responsible for appointing about 4,000 officials throughout the federal government. A new president must fill these positions from scratch while second-term presidents often face significant staff turnover. According to previous research by the Partnership for Public Service, the first year of a second term coincides with an average turnover rate of more than 40% for senior leadership positions. Both before and after the Nov. 3 election, it is critical for transition planners to focus on public health and economic policy appointees who will be responsible for overseeing the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the sagging economy.
The specific priority positions will depend on how a new administration structures its response, while a second-term administration may take the opportunity to reshape its efforts. A Cabinet-led response will require the administration to prioritize agency leadership positions while a response driven by the White House will call for a different staffing structure. Transition planners should develop a clear picture of what the post-election COVID-19 response will look like and identify key personnel for this effort.
The pandemic also has created several second-order threats such as increased cybersecurity risks with a remote workforce as well as greater global instability. The next administration should recognize that successfully navigating the current crises will require filling positions without traditional “pandemic-response” roles in agencies throughout the government.
The pandemic also will create operational challenges for presidential appointees. Procedures will have to be developed for previously routine issues, ranging from how to conduct safe and secure briefings with new appointees to the best way to work with a potentially remote Senate. The challenger’s transition team will need to closely coordinate with the General Service Administration (GSA), which provides the transition with office space, IT equipment and other support.
According to Mary Gibert, the federal transition coordinator at GSA, the groundwork for a virtual transition, however, has already been laid. In the last transition, much of the work was already conducted virtually, with many of personnel choosing to work on GSA-provided devices rather than come into the office. “COVID has not impacted our transition planning,” Gibert says. “We haven’t missed a beat. We’ve kept up with all our statutory requirements.”
Those involved in overseeing a second Trump term will have to ensure the Office of Presidential Personnel can ramp up its efforts to meet an expected turnover of political appointees on top of a high level of current vacancies, and determine where it can improve operations and procedures to better deal with the challenges resulting from the pandemic.
Prioritizing key executive actions will advance policy goals
actions are one tool presidents can use to enact significant change–and do so
quickly. Effectively using executive orders for achieving policy goals may
be more challenging in 2021 because so much attention must be devoted to
dealing with the immediate crises. Transition planners for both first- and
fifth-year administrations should take time to develop executive orders and
anticipate potential operational and legal challenges well before Jan. 20.
First-year administrations face a two-pronged challenge. They must advance the new president’s agenda while evaluating previous executive actions and rules they want to change. This can be a huge undertaking even under normal conditions. Resource constraints created by the pandemic will make it difficult for a new administration to accomplish all its goals. An incoming administration should concentrate on the most critical subset of issues. Doing so will prevent it from spreading itself too thin and increase its chances of success. Historically, there has been a decline in the number of executive orders issued by a president during the fifth year in office compared with the first term. In interviews with the Partnership for Public Service, former senior White House officials suggested the focus on re-election often limits formal planning for a president’s fifth year. If an administration is facing both a crisis and a re-election campaign, as is the case today, developing fifth-year executive orders may well fall to the bottom of the agenda. Investing time and resources in planning an executive agenda now, however, may allow the president to start the fifth year more effectively and set a productive tone for the rest of their presidency.
The White House structure must be equipped to respond to the current and future crises
All presidents seek a White House
organizational structure that will lead to a smooth functioning operation and enable
them to achieve their key policy priorities. New administrations must create this
structure from scratch while a second-term administration has the opportunity
to reexamine its White House design and improve areas of weakness. Any such
redesign, however, will need to be attuned to the demands of the current crisis.
Different presidents have relied on a variety of organizational structures to address crises. During Harry Truman’s presidency, Congress created the National Security Council in 1947 to help the president coordinate national security policy. In 1993, President Bill Clinton created the National Economic Council by executive order to help coordinate the economic policy-making process and provide economic policy advice.
These entities centralized decision-making and the flow of information. Other presidents have relied on temporary arrangements such as President Obama’s appointment of an Ebola czar in 2014 to coordinate what was then the world’s biggest health threat. This type of temporary structure can be valuable but cannot provide the same institutional knowledge offered by a more permanent organization. Both first- and fifth-year administrations should use the transition period as an opportunity to evaluate the current pandemic response structure and determine if changes are needed. The next administration also should assess how to operate in a partial virtual work environment. A new administration should seek expert guidance and develop contingency plans while the current administration should identify problem areas that need to be resolved. Identifying and resolving these issues long before Inauguration Day will ensure a smooth start for a new administration or lead to improved conditions for a second term. Lessons could be learned from the agencies across government who are currently operating partially or totally virtually. Despite working virtually, agencies like the IRS and FEMA have managed to fulfill their normal mission requirements in addition to the new demands created by COVID-19. A new administration will have to demonstrate a similar level of agility.
A new administration must understand how agencies operate
new administration must have a thorough understanding of every federal agency’s
capabilities and responsibilities. To do this, presidential transition teams traditionally
create landing teams that enter agencies following the election and gather relevant
information. The roles of various agencies can change rapidly during a crisis. The
transition landing teams must flag challenges related to the pandemic so that
those issues can be evaluated and resolved.
Landing teams should also map the statutory landscape for each agency. Do agencies have emergency powers they are not taking advantage of? Are agencies exceeding the legal limits of their authority? An incoming administration must be aware of all these issues to mount an effective COVID-19 response. In addition, federal agencies must coordinate with one another, the private sector, state and municipal governments, and international partners during a crisis such as a pandemic. Landing teams should document these relationships so an incoming administration can take immediate control and identify potential pain points that need to be resolved.
Whether it’s a second Trump term or a first term for Biden, our
government must be prepared to tackle the pandemic and the nation’s economic problems
in addition to the challenges associated with any presidential transition. This
will require thorough transition planning that accounts for the uniqueness of
the current crises.
By the IBM Center for Government and the Shared Services Leadership Coalition
One of the first major policy requirements for any new president is to submit a budget proposal to Congress. For recently elected administrations, this budget is usually presented in February—less than a month into a first term—followed by a more detailed request later in the spring. Presidential transition teams often begin preparing their budget proposals before inauguration.
Rising deficits and debt constrain spending and make the
budget process increasingly more difficult. As a result, the government needs
to find creative approaches to pay for current and future operations,
especially with the added pressure created by the recent economic stimulus plan.
One option for federal leaders and agencies is to encourage the private sector
to invest in modernizing government operations.
To address these challenges, the IBM Center for the Business of Government
and the Shared Services Leadership Coalition recently released a report, Mobilizing Capital
Investment to Modernize Government, which offers strategies federal
agencies can use to encourage private investment. The report offers specific recommendations
for revising budget and acquisition procedures while abiding by safeguards in
appropriations, budget scoring and procurement processes rooted in long-standing
This report also includes expert insights and precedents for applying
commercial best practices across government. Among the recommendations:
- The federal government should evaluate precedents
regarding how private capital has been used for public purposes and determine
how those examples can be applied to other situations.
- The federal government’s budget and procurement
processes should be made friendlier to outside investments to help modernize
government and encourage more public-private partnerships.
The report features 10 recommendations for the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration and Congress, and their stakeholders and partners. Leaders who find creative ways to improve the budget process will be better equipped to address important national needs now and moving forward.