As a participant in the last four presidential transitions, I have witnessed a wide range of performances — from clockwork to calamity, disciplined to desultory. As the incoming Biden-Harris administration-in-waiting deploys its Agency Review Teams (ARTs) across the federal government, here are some helpful ideas for getting off to a good start and setting the stage for long-term success. Nearly as important, here are some landmines to avoid along the way.
For career staff, this can be the moment you’ve been waiting for — the opportunity to align your agency’s best work with the goals of the incoming administration. It’s a chance to find a new champion of a great but orphaned idea or the time to get much-needed attention to a festering problem. Presidential transitions, when successfully executed, show how the power of government can be peacefully transferred, continuing to serve the people, even in times of strife or in the midst of a global health crisis. Done poorly (or not at all), an ineffective transition can lead to mismanagement, waste, discouragement and a downward pitch in morale.
For ART members, a disciplined approach will focus on those actions that best position new Senate-confirmed appointees and their teams for success as they take the reins of government. While complex problems and needed reforms may require action, ARTs generally have neither the deep expertise nor the time to accomplish these tasks during a transition. They do better to focus on a shortlist of essential questions:
- Impact: What aspects of this organization (department, agency, bureau, office etc) are working well and should absolutely be continued or built upon?
- Alignment: How might a particular organization’s mission best support the priorities of the new administration?
- Barriers: What gets in the way, i.e. what are the constraints to the effective execution of the organization’s mission? This may be the area to address what capabilities have been lost and how they might be restored.
- Quick wins: What actions can be accomplished quickly (first 100 days/short-term priorities) that would have an immediate impact on delivery of the organization’s mission?
- Opportunities: What opportunities are available in the coming year to launch, accelerate, enhance or commemorate U.S. initiatives? Each year, there are summits, events, celebrations and ceremonies that are appropriate opportunities for agenda-setting events. Flagging these opportunities for the new team is extremely helpful to create early action on U.S. government priorities.
ART members have two very special assets that are not always available to the career service. The first is the imperative to accomplish their task during a very short time window. The second is the ART members’ access to both the political leadership of the incoming team as well as to a large network of experts inside and outside of government to help formulate their recommendations. A successful ART member will move between these two worlds, exchanging information, validating ideas and testing messages for incorporation into future policy, program and personnel decisions.
For career staff, your homework consists of researching speeches and campaign position papers to be aware of the new team’s priorities. Be prepared to educate very smart people who may know very little about your department or agency and at the same time (and in the same meeting) be ready to answer questions from those who have years of expertise and/or service in your world. You may have prepared binders full of information, some of which may actually get read. Carefully consider any guidance you are given to decide what information needs to be brought forward in the limited time you have with the ART.
Briefings from career staff succeed when they are well-organized around a small number of key points, simply expressed. That means pitching the briefing at the right level — headlines and highlights — to avoid getting lost in details. Weed out the jargon and the acronyms to save time and make your communication clear.
Even more important is framing and expressing ideas in the language of possibility and potential, rather than constraints. Responding to ART queries with phrases like “We’re already doing that” or “We don’t have the money or the people” immediately suck the energy out of the room (or the Zoom). The new team will be looking for the best ideas available. And they have the power to reorder priorities and mobilize resources. Look at their “fresh eyes” on a topic as an opportunity,
ART members should avoid the “Not Invented Here” syndrome when all ideas of the last administration are labeled “bad” and reflexively dismissed. No doubt, you will hear ideas that you would not have supported, but probably not all of them.
Given the COVID-19 crisis, this will be the first modern transition that occurs remotely. This means the cues normally present with face-to-face interaction will be more difficult to read. ART members should pursue offline conversations to replace what would normally occur in the walk-and-talk prep sessions before a meeting and the informal debrief or coffees that often follow. These conversations are often used to decode, clarify and analyze the “meeting within the meeting” that can be masked in remote call-ins.
Beyond meeting mechanics, ART members will encounter a federal bureaucracy that has experienced high levels of turnover, a 35-day shutdown in 2018-2019, and months of operating in isolation from their colleagues. Conveying to all federal personnel an appreciation for their service, listening deeply and providing information as completely and transparently as possible will improve the current climate immeasurably.
With the election over and the transition now underway, the transition is an opportunity to bring forward the best in public service. Skillfully managed by incoming political leadership, it can also lay the foundation for the hard work that comes next.
Neil Levine participated in the presidential transitions in 1993, 2000, 2008 and 2017 at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Neil retired from federal service in 2017 after 30 years. He taught Strategic Leadership at the National Defense University’s Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Policy. Neil is a certified professional coach with over 20 years of experience in advising individuals and groups on setting the conditions for success. Neil has a M.S. in National Security Strategy from the National War College (2008), a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University (1986) and a B.A. from Earlham College (1983). In 2017, he received his Executive Coaching certification from the College of Executive Coaching.