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:

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:

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:

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 Alex Tippett and Troy Cribb

During election seasons, the status of political appointees in the federal workforce come under increased scrutiny. Under all recent presidents, some political appointees have attempted to become civil servants — a process commonly called “burrowing in.”

Unlike political appointments, civil service positions do not terminate at the end of an administration. Conversion therefore allows political appointees to stay in government after the president who appointed them has left office.

These kinds of conversions inevitably create concerns. Supporters of an incoming president may be suspicious of individuals hired by the previous administration. More broadly, some fear conversions can violate the merit system principles that govern hiring in the federal civil service.

The hiring process for civil servants is designed to promote a professional, apolitical workforce and to prevent discrimination, political favoritism, nepotism or other prohibited practices. To ensure these rules are followed, the Office of Personnel Management reviews requests to move a political appointee into the civil service. This review is designed to prevent improper conversions while providing talented individuals with the opportunity to join the civil service.

How does OPM conduct oversight?

While OPM has reviewed conversions since the Carter administration, the process has changed over time. Currently, agencies must submit a request to OPM whenever they seek to hire a current political appointee or one who has served in a political position within the last five years. OPM conducts multi-level reviews of each application to make sure the conversion follows federal hiring guidelines.

If OPM believes a conversion violates federal hiring laws or regulations, it may reject the conversion. If OPM finds the agency’s conversion attempt violates the federal government’s prohibited personnel practices, it may refer the issue to the Office of Special Counsel for investigation.

On occasion, agencies have converted political appointees without going through the OPM review process. In those cases, OPM retroactively reviews the conversions and issues any necessary corrective actions, which can include re-advertising the position. Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the firing of an appointee who had converted to a career position without an OPM review.

OPM’s procedure is not laid out in statute. Instead, existing laws and regulations broadly empower OPM to protect the civil service’s merit system. Individual OPM directors have interpreted this authority differently, with the rules tightening over the years. Previously, agencies only had to file a request for a smaller subset of political appointees and only for conversions taking place close to an election. OPM’s current regulations require that every conversion receive approval.

Congress also created specific reporting requirements for conversions. The Edward “Ted” Kaufman and Michael Leavitt Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015 requires that OPM submit an annual report to Congress detailing the conversions. During the final year of a presidential term, these reports must be submitted quarterly.

How common is burrowing?

Investigations by the Government Accountability Office suggest that conversions are relatively rare. According to GAO’s most recent report in 2017, OPM received 99 conversion requests from January 2010 to March 2016. For context, during that period, the federal government hired about 100,000 people every year into full-time permanent positions.

Of those 99 requests, OPM approved 78, suggesting that most conversions followed proper procedure. The GAO found no reason to disagree with OPM’s assessments.

Of the 78 requests approved by OPM in the latest GAO report, only 69 were carried out. Occasionally, an applicant will decline to take the job after it is offered to them.

A relatively small number of agencies have accounted for a large portion of conversion requests. Between January 2010 and March 2016, approximately 10% of requests were initiated by the Justice Department. The top five agencies—Justice, Treasury, Defense, Agriculture and Homeland Security—accounted for nearly 40% of the conversion requests filed.

Some agencies have occasionally failed to request permission from OPM before carrying out conversions. There were seven instances of this cited by the GAO. When this occurs, OPM carries out a post-appointment review as soon as it becomes aware of the conversion.

Conversions themselves also tend to increase immediately before an election. While available data is incomplete, 47 conversions occurred in the final year of President George W. Bush’s presidency, up from 36 the previous year. At least 19 occurred in President Barrack Obama’s fourth year, up from 11 the previous year. GAO’s 2017 burrowing report does not include the final months of Obama’s administration or the entirety of the Trump administration.

Additional public data would be helpful

While the law requires OPM to report instances of burrowing to Congress, neither the agency nor the House Committee on Oversight and Reform or the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs have made the information public. Doing so is in the public interest and could help guard against potential abuses.

Four-star Admiral James Stavridis and former General Motors CEO Dan Akerson distinguished themselves as exceptional leaders during times of crisis.  Join us on Transition Lab to learn how effective leaders operate during times of uncertainty. Stavridis and Akerson discuss how public and private sector leaders can navigate the challenges posed by the coronavirus.   

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Read the highlights:

Dave: “What is the size and scope of the COVID-19 crisis?”

Admiral Stavridis: “This is the biggest crisis the nation has faced since the second world war, and that’s going back over 70 years. I think the only way I can categorize it from relatively recent life events from the 21st century, is that this combines the worst of the 2008 financial crisis with 9/11. In that sense, this is a dagger pointed at the heart of the U.S. and global economy.”

Dave: “What attributes do the best leaders possess in times of crisis?” 

Admiral Staviridis: “[The leadership skills] I’ve found that transferred seamlessly [from military to business] are two very basic things that are effectively the same: a sense of integrity and the need for honesty. At the Navel Academy, we have an honor code: we don’t lie, cheat or steal. I think that’s a basic framework, but leaders know that they have to have that bedrock of integrity… 

Secondly, the ability to communicate, to take an idea and inspire others, is both a technical skill – to think and speak, present well – but also a creative skill, taking what you’ve come up with and moving it across a wide frame. 

Thirdly, both in the military and the business world, innovation is critical. Steve Jobs, who knew a lot about innovation… He said that, ‘the difference between leaders and followers is the ability to innovate.’ And I think that is true. It was true for me in the military when I changed the command structure of U.S. Southern Command… you have to be able to innovate.”

Dan Akerson: “Integrity is absolutely critical to being an effective leader. People are going to watch how you conduct yourself in good times and bad when the pressure is on and not.”  

Stuart Eizenstat and David Rubenstein discuss their experience working on the Carter campaign, the transition and their own work in the Carter administration. The two explain that while Carter had an enormously consequential one-term presidency, the flawed transition had a lasting, negative impact on Carter’s presidency. 

Listen, rate and subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher and TuneIn.

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Read the highlights:

Dave: “Carter was the first president that actually diverted significant resources, both personnel and campaign resources, funding to transition planning. Why did he think that was important?” 

Stuart Eizenstat: “I think the reason was Jimmy Carter is an engineer. He believes in planning and advanced planning. And he felt that if he could get a running head start by having a transition team begin to put together the kinds of policies we would implement—that this would help his presidency. . . actually the reverse happened and the reason is that David and I were heading the policy staff of the campaign. And unbeknownst to us until about a month before the election, Jimmy Carter had a parallel policy planning group for the transition headed by Jack Watson.”  

David Rubenstein: “Sometimes your brain can have two lobes to it and they don’t necessarily work together. So [Carter] had a lobe for the campaign and a lobe working on the transition and he didn’t really see that they had to interact a bit and I think that was a part of the problem.”  

Stuart Eizenstat: “The president basically gave the Cabinet secretaries free rein to name their own top deputies, deputy secretaries, undersecretaries [and] assistant secretaries who therefore were more loyal to them than they were to the president. Not a good idea.”  

Dave: “Okay, so you’ve highlighted no chief of staff, a flawed personnel process and this dissonance between the campaign and the transition…What was the impact of governing because of this flawed transition process?”  

David Rubenstein: “Carter is a very, very smart person, but he wanted to engineer everything, and he didn’t prioritize. He wanted to do so many things and he did do a lot of things, but he might’ve gotten more done if he has prioritized things a little bit better.”  

Stuart explained that the absence of a strong chief of staff impeded their ability to set priorities.   

Stuart Eizenstat: “The problem is so evident. We threw so much up at Congress. Tip O’Neill (Speaker of the House at the time) at leadership breakfasts would say week after week, ‘You’ve got to tell us your priorities. We can’t absorb all of this’… All of these [bills] came into Congress in the first year or so and they just bombarded Congress. So, we actually accomplished, as I mentioned at the beginning, an enormous amount, but it always paled in comparison to what we [gave Congress.]” 

David Rubenstein: “I think Carter may have had the same phenomenon that may be the current president may have. When you’re president of the United States, you think you get the best information, you make the best decisions so forth, but you also think at the end of four years you’ve got this job down pretty well. You know how to do it and therefore you don’t really plan that much for the second term. I don’t really know, if Carter had won that election, exactly what his priorities were for the second term. I think it’s just like more of the same, but it wasn’t like what he had said during the campaign, ‘Here are the 10 things I’m going to do in the second term,’ because you’re kind of worn out. You kind of tell people this is what I did and elect me if you like what I did. Right now, today, if you were to sit down with President Trump, I’m not sure he could say here are the 10 things I want to do in a second term if I’m elected. So, I think somebody must, in a second term presidency, really focus at the end of that first term [and decide] what the [president is] going to do that’s really different or better than he did in the first term.” 

Confronted with considerable change in the coming decade, the federal government must evolve to support technology, data and the evolution of workplace demands. Presidents need forward-thinking and proactive management agendas in order to adapt to these changes and build a successful administration to deliver on campaign promises. In fact, most transition teams view management issues as so critical, they devote significant resources to planning their administrative strategy in addition to their policy preparation.

The Partnership for Public Service and Ernst & Young LLP recently released a report on the future of government that can inform both administrations seeking a second term and challengers seeking the presidency. Through interviews with agency leaders and subject-matter specialists, “A Roadmap to the Future: Toward a More Connected Federal Government” offers recommendations on how agencies can make the most of technology, data and the workforce to better accomplish their missions.

Success in these areas depends on agencies improving internal collaboration, working together, engaging the public and establishing connections with stakeholders from outside government.

Doing so allows agencies to:

As the report notes, “Widespread success would mean a more effective and efficient federal government that pushes the limits of the possible and exceeds, rather than simply meets, the expectations of the people it serves.”

Download the full report.