Agency Review

December 17, 2018
Incoming Administration


The agency review team is responsible for collecting information about the unique roles and responsibilities of each major department and agency of the federal government, and providing information that is relevant, useful and important to the new administration.

Incoming leadership needs a clear sense of the strengths, challenges, culture and pressing issues of each organization to make informed decisions about who should serve in key leadership roles and to prioritize the issues where attention is most needed, particularly during the first six months of an administration. This requires significant internal preparations to develop and prepare agency review teams to work with agency transition liaisons and career employees to develop an overall understanding of the issues that the incoming administration will face.

Agency review, policy and personnel all have distinct mandates, but their work will overlap in important ways–especially as the election nears. Unlike the policy review team, which is charged with taking on major cross-cutting policy priorities and developing plans to achieve them, the main mission of the agency review team should be on providing clear and objective information on each agency’s role and the potential issues the incoming president and agency heads should be prepared to face. One former Cabinet secretary referred to some of these issues as “asteroids”—unplanned and disruptive or even catastrophic developments that can derail an agency, an appointee or a policy agenda if leaders are not paying attention.

Because the responsibility of the agency review team is to collect and present information rather than to formulate policy, most transitions separate the policy and agency review functions. Nevertheless, because the work of the two teams overlaps significantly, there should be close coordination, particularly in identifying “flashpoint issues” that will require the new administration’s attention right away. It is inevitable that the review teams will develop some policy proposals or uncover successful policies already in place during the course of their review.

The work of the agency review team also is related to, yet distinct from, the work of the presidential personnel team. Because the agency review team will have a clear line of sight into key staff positions, potential personnel issues or leadership gaps within each agency, it should work closely with the personnel team to identify potential candidates to lead each agency and identify other core positions within each agency that should be prioritized. Furthermore, the agency review team may play a role in identifying the major management challenges or successes within each agency, identifying particular skills and competencies needed for each position, and uncovering any best practices or successful programs.

Based on the experiences of previous transition teams, there are a few notable aspects of the agency review process that future teams would be well served to keep in mind. First, the agency review process is typically an unstated way of onboarding incoming political appointees, and work on the review team for a specific agency is one of the better ways for potential appointees to build critical knowledge of key agency functions, practices and culture. Many review team staff are chosen to serve in the administration and these positions are highly coveted. However, this agency-specific onboarding process may not provide incoming appointees with the broad knowledge of the federal government that they need to be effective once they are in their jobs, especially for appointees who have never worked in government.

The products created by many previous agency review efforts have not always been well-used by incoming agency appointees because the materials were often too long and because they contained incorrect or unhelpful information. Agency review teams should make an effort to capture not just critical policy issues, deadlines and challenges, but a sense of positive initiatives at the agency or those in the pipeline, existing and potential cross-agency partnerships, and the quality people who are making an outsized impact. The teams should make use of resources like the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and the Partnership’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings, valuable tools that allow incoming appointees to understand how employees view their leaders and mission, and provide a sense of the health of each organization. All of this information provides incoming leaders with a sense of both areas where they can achieve early wins, improve morale and find high-performers who might serve as a leadership bench.

The agency review planning and implementation process should ideally begin once an agency review team leader is selected in late spring of the election year. By July or early August, agency review team leads should be identified and working with a handful of staff to prepare to enter the agencies post-election. From August through September, the various agency review teams should begin training the staff to enter agencies and preparing information using publically available resources. The formal agency review process will begin immediately after the election and last through to the inauguration, when teams will develop their final deliverables and brief incoming agency leadership on their new jobs and organizations.

Please see Chapter 5 of the Presidential Transition Guide for more information on the agency review work stream.