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Transition Notebook: What Political Appointees and Career Civil Servants Do to Assure a Successful Transition

As a veteran of four presidential transitions with experience as a civil servant and a political appointee, here are some do’s and don’t’s for both teams to look out for between now and the end of the first 100 days of the Biden-Harris Administration.

For the newly-arriving political team, the key to success is the selection of qualified individuals to guide the transition and to lead the new administration. Here “personnel equals policy” so choices for the cabinet and sub-cabinet need to be well-qualified, well-vetted and ready to perform on Day One. Failure to perform due diligence or putting up unqualified or divisive appointees not only leads to unwanted negative press – it saps the momentum needed for a quick start and early progress for achieving early policy wins.

Prioritizing issues for the first 100 days and keeping message discipline are essential. A change in parties is always accompanied by increased demands to reverse or at least review signature policies and reform processes or address issues that have been orphaned or allowed to fester. No new administration can address all the perceived ills it may inherit. Nor can it address all the demands from its internal and external political and governmental stakeholders. Identifying and sticking to priorities calls for strict discipline and focused energy.

Leadership matters. Beyond the selection of a new cabinet, the real blocking and tackling in government policymaking and providing government services occurs at lower levels of management where vision, political savvy, communication and conflict resolution skills are required. Writing recently for the Center for a New American Security, co-authors Kristin Lord and Christopher Kolenda identify “integrity, decision-making, team building [and] accountability” as “hard-to-teach” but must have leadership skills for incoming political appointees to foreign policy positions.

Above all, political appointees are advised to listen deeply to career staff. Overcoming the canard of a nefarious Deep State, politicals will find in the career public service a font of deep expertise married to a highly-driven sense of the mission of the department or agency. While they may personally lean red or blue, their career commitment is to serving the American people through the successful execution of their particular institution’s mission. The new team may reject the advice they receive – and that’s okay – but thorough-going conversations of the implications of policy can lay the groundwork for a smooth transition. It starts with listening.

For the civil servants tapped to work closely with the incoming administration, here are some things to think about.

Assure accountable continuity of operations. Focusing on the goal of a peaceful and orderly transition of power means assuring that the business of government continues regardless of the political squabbles that may linger. This is where the expertise of accountable government is key. Outgoing administrations will want to “play until the final whistle” to secure their signature initiatives or put a final touch on their legacy. That’s fine, but it has to be done legally. Cutting corners by short-cutting legal and regulatory processes is out of bounds. Career officials are there to document and blow the whistle if necessary.

Speak to the new team’s listening. Seasoned civil servants will have done their homework and will have identified broad areas of interest of the new team, gleaned from speeches, policy papers and the individuals associated with the campaign. Be prepared to put forward your best ideas that will resonate with the new team’s interest. At the same time, there is an opportunity to educate new leadership about what gets in the way of the mission and how they can help. Perhaps the hardest part of the job will be overcoming the “not invented here” syndrome where ideas of the other party are summarily rejected, regardless of merit.

Identify your team’s “transition whisperers.” Political appointees with prior service in the department agencies and long-tenured career civil servants are likely to be known quantities who have earned respect for their political savvy and deep institutional knowledge. These individuals move easily between the political team and the career service, translating policy requirements into a language that the bureaucracy can process and then execute. Putting these people to work can smooth the transition and set the stage for early success.

After a divisive and hard-fought election, the hard work of governance begins. It starts with establishing the conditions in which political appointees and career public servants can execute an orderly, peaceful and productive transition.

Neil Levine 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.

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