It is possible to avoid such pitfalls. If the transition teams of the current presidential nominees begin to work immediately after their party’s conventions—and if they follow a systematic plan—the transition process can be accelerated dramatically.
On the basis of our extensive expertise in transition planning, including our ongoing work with the nonprofit organization Partnership for Public Service, as well as our experience with large private-sector merger integrations, we have identified four initial actions that can significantly improve the handoff of power.
Start the process early. For most presidential candidates, the concept of preelection planning pales in comparison with private-sector benchmarks. The process has improved recently, thanks in part to the passage of legislation, including a 2010 law that allocates federal resources, such as office space and technical assistance, to the nominees’ transition teams. But there is still a reluctance on the part of those nominees to appear presumptuous by focusing too early on transition planning.
As a result, the new president’s transition team is typically ready to seek confirmation of only a small number of candidates by Inauguration Day. Exacerbating the personnel challenge is the fact that many candidates for top jobs in a new administration are themselves slow to pull together the vetting material and financial disclosures that will be required for confirmation. All this results in a ripple effect of delayed appointments and confirmations for other important posts as the Senate calendar loads up and politics intensify through the spring and summer.
The nominees’ transition teams should begin research into available talent after the conclusion of the parties’ conventions in July, and they should assemble shortlists of candidates for priority positions by Election Day. This will allow the formal process of vetting the financial, security, and personal backgrounds of candidates to begin immediately after the election. The more candidates vetted and ready for nomination, the more quickly the new administration will be able to fill key positions and staff federal agencies after the inauguration.
We believe that the transition teams for both candidates should aim to submit at least 100 nominations by Inauguration Day, with the top 30 to be acted upon immediately. In addition, the new administration should strive to have up to 500 appointments—including cabinet secretaries, agency heads, and key ambassadors—approved by the Senate within the first seven months of the new president’s term. It should also have a plan to quickly build out the team—assistant secretary, CFO, general counsel—in agencies that are central to achieving strategic priorities or in which other important operational risks exist if critical personnel are not in place.
Finally, transition staff should plan for the fact that Senate approval takes more time and energy to secure for some positions than for others. Nominations considered by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the US Senate Committees on Foreign Relations, Armed Services, and Small Business and Entrepreneurship are generally approved in about 70 days. Those considered by the US Senate Committees on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; Rules and Administration; and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs require at least 100 days on average.
As the work of filling critical posts unfolds, the transition team and the president-elect and his or her advisors should develop a productive way of interacting and collaborating with each other. This relationship between the transition organization and the president-elect’s team is akin to the interplay between the integration team in a large merger and the executive management team. The transition team brings critical issues into focus and frames the choices, and then the president-elect and his or her advisors make the decisions.
Drive the transition on the basis of clear goals. In any major transition, whether a private-sector merger or a presidential handoff, it is important to clearly define the goals and to understand the roadblocks and enablers that affect them. In a private-sector merger, this is essentially completed in the due diligence phase. In a presidential transition, the goals should be defined before Election Day.
The transition team should understand how the major policy objectives of the incoming administration connect to the various federal agencies under the executive branch. The team should perform deep analysis of the relevant agencies, including their strengths and weaknesses and their roles with regard to specific policy objectives. It is also critical for the transition team to clearly communicate to agency teams the primary policy goals of the new administration and the roles that those agencies will play in achieving the objectives. This will ensure that the new administration and the agencies focus on translating the right campaign promises into action.
Identify talent on the basis of qualifications. Traditionally, transition teams turn to external stakeholders, such as policy advisors and trade and professional associations that support their campaign, for initial guidance on individuals for key agency positions. As a result, different groups of supporters generate long lists of potential job candidates who represent their views—but who also may not be well suited to the critical roles required of them.
We assert that the transition team should begin the talent search by first identifying and describing the technical, policy, and leadership requirements for all appointed positions. The team should then use these detailed position descriptions to guide their talent decisions and recruitment strategies. Guidance and specific recommendations for these roles by external stakeholders and campaign supporters should be considered secondary. This approach will result in appointees who are better qualified, more effective, and potentially more easily confirmed.
Focus on managing the change. The task of presidential transition is not simply an intense staffing drive. Rather, it is the process of rapidly building a cohesive organization that can execute on an ambitious set of objectives in a very short amount of time. As a result, transition leaders need to think about how they will embed the values, vision, and ways of working that will be the foundation for the administration over the next four or eight years. (See Changing Change Management: A Blueprint Takes Hold, BCG report, December 2012.)
This involves a wide spectrum of activities. Leaders must clearly communicate—as one voice—the objectives of the transition and how the team will accomplish those objectives. They should establish clear governance structures and processes. They should also develop roadmaps for achieving key priorities and solid milestones for measuring progress. Finally, desired behaviors and attitudes must be clarified from the outset and reinforced throughout the transition. This will help establish the right mindset and culture for the entire transition.
Valuable lessons can be learned from both the public and the private sectors when it comes to managing a successful presidential transition. In the months ahead, we will publish additional articles on these insights as the handoff approaches.
In the meantime, it is imperative that both presidential candidates learn from the best practices employed in previous large-scale transitions. After all, in a period of major global challenges and uncertainty, the stakes could not be higher.
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