By David Chu
It’s been my privilege to participate in six transitions—symmetrically, three in, three out. (That’s counting generously, since it includes as one set the “friendly” transition from President Reagan’s administration to President George H.W. Bush’s.) It’s only a limited sample, and all the data points involve a single cabinet agency. Moreover, each differs in its specific circumstances. But looking back, I think some generalizations are possible, especially regarding management challenges. Whether they are likely to apply going forward I leave to the reader’s speculation.
The first applies to the incoming appointees. As the new administration gets under way, except for the cabinet officer/agency head himself or herself, many of the other politicals will arrive “in the middle of the play” so to speak, weeks or months after January 20th, whether reflecting the time taken for political clearance, or the time required for confirmation, or both. But the cabinet agency is already well along in advancing the agenda of the new administration (e.g., preparing the President’s Budget Request). Worse, the management procedures being employed will likely have an ad hoc quality, a hybrid of inherited practices and new approaches reflecting the preferences of the incoming administration’s leadership. Worse still, the new appointee may only dimly understand this history. Put differently, there is a history, despite the tendency of each administration to date history from its inauguration. One of the most significant management challenges is helping sort out what the management processes should look like, benefitting from hard-won lessons of the past, while thoughtfully pruning what doesn’t fit the new team or the new circumstances. On the one hand, not all that is inherited is necessarily inappropriate (“unfriendly” transitions tend to jettison more than might be wise), but not all should be viewed as sacrosanct (“friendly” transitions may try to retain procedures that don’t really fit the new team).
The second applies to members of the departing team. Two extreme behaviors can co-exist: a rush to complete the old agenda, and a reluctance to invest in the initial steps to resolve ongoing problems, leaving them to the new team to confront. This awkward co-existence is reinforced by the reality that the ranks of the departing team can thin rapidly as January 20th approaches. The result is a management jumble, with some actions not well prepared for the proverbial “prime time,” while actions on other problems are overdue, putting the new administration (and the country) at a distinct disadvantage. The confusion is exacerbated by the distrust that can characterize an “unfriendly” transition, with classes of actions suspended (e.g., decisions on federal regulations) because it’s so difficult to sort out which individual actions the new administration is prepared to support, and which it opposes. An ethos of (temporary) management continuity is clearly desirable. Besides considerable trust and good will between the outgoing and incoming teams, a variety of changes would probably be needed to secure such a result. I have my own prejudices on what might be considered, but it’s a good subject about which to encourage others to comment!