Transitioning Top Talent

By Hannah Sistare

The successful achievement of any Administration’s objectives depends upon a high-quality senior team heading Cabinet departments and agencies.  Fortunately, recent incoming and outgoing Administrations have shown themselves willing to work together before the Inauguration.

Human capital management remains a critical topic for the next Administration. In particular, the ability to attract and retain talented, high-ranking employees in key senior positions and the importance of preparing them to serve are issues of grave importance and concern. Members of the Academy’s Transition 16 Panel highlighted issues and posed questions to define the challenges and elicit suggestions on how to address these issues.

During the Panel’s session at the Academy’s Fall Meeting in December, some key issues with presented and discussed. Below are some of the highlights of that meeting, which also encompass the discussion points of our Panel to date.

  • Successful “transitioning out” is as important as successful “transitioning in.” The first success factor is planning early and thoughtfully, as the Bush Administration did in 2008/2009. President Bush sent a clear signal to his team about his expectations, and committed the talent and resources to make it happen. He also made himself available when needed.
  • The incoming Administration must listen to and heed the lessons of the outgoing Administration, and the outgoing Administration should facilitate for the incoming leadership, helping them build connections, clear away hurdles, understand requirements and rules, and expedite bureaucratic requirements (such as clearance processes).
  • The transition period provides a sharp focus on the importance of building career leadership. Early behaviors by current or outgoing leaders send indelible messages. Especially important is how agency review teams (or landing teams) are supported, and how new appointees are treated as they start arriving. As during any change, there is a period of un-jelling and then re-jelling. During transition, people are looking for signals about what the new ways will be before they “re-freeze.”
  • Change of Administration provides an opportunity to establish productive relationships between the new leadership and the existing senior career corps, which is key to the success of the new President’s agenda. The new leadership needs to demonstrate trust in the senior career staff. And, on the other side, career civil servants must demonstrate that they are there to work with the new leadership.
  • Because many career senior executives may have “hung on” through the second half of the Obama Administration, some expect a big turnover in 2016 and 2017. This may offer an opportunity to place new people in the executive roles.
  • There is increasing sentiment that additional senior positions should be entrusted to career civil servants vs. political appointees. However, equal forces exist against decreasing the number of Senate-confirmed appointments.
  • Finding new candidates for the more than 8,000 positions to which the President makes appointments is a daunting task, made more difficult because, with the Internet, there are thousands of resumes and applications: Obama’s team received about 300,000 applications.
  • This volume of applications has significantly slowed the process, especially of making nominations. Reasons it takes so long includes volume of applications, the vetting and clearing process, financial disclosure, sensitivity to ethical problems, and the centralized control of the whole process in the White House.
  • The Academy’s Transition Committee is considering proposals to improve the transition. Many of these are about streamlining and standardizing forms and processes, and improving onboarding including. Some recommendations and suggestions include: planning early, adequately supporting these efforts with resources and technology, getting adequate prioritizing events, and more.
  • The broadest consensus is around reducing the total number of political appointees—an idea easier to talk about than to achieve.

Participants in both the audience and on the Panel provided many valuable suggestions:

  • Set priorities in terms of feasibility to accomplish the task(s) in the short run
  • Partner with key players to develop and get agreement on single, standard forms for financial disclosure and other purposes.
  • Develop videos and materials so nominees can learn about processes and requirements related to appointments, confirmation, and transition issues.
  • Develop a template to be used by all for providing department-specific information to the President.
  • Improve on-boarding for political appointees to help them identify peer groups, build trust with the agency’s career staff, avoid isolation.
  • Prepare for party-to-same-party transition as well as party-to-new-party transition.
  • Help educate career people—as well as new political appointees—who have not gone through transitions before.

We aim to use this discussion and the suggestions provided to develop a comprehensive set of concrete and actionable recommendations to assist the incoming Administration in addressing the most critical human capital issues.

Panel meeting notes provided by Sally Jaggar.


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