Managing the Real Bears of the Presidential Transition

By Diane M. Disney

To smooth the change from this president to the next, Congress has passed a transition planning bill and President Obama has issued an executive order creating a White House Transition Coordinating Council and an Agency Transition Directors Council.  These admirable actions should go far toward sharing knowledge, understanding how to vet candidates, and preparing the newcomers about the scope and strictures of Federal service.  However, as currently structured, none of these really addresses two important fundamentals, one philosophical and the other practical.

First is the realization that demands on the public purse continue to rise while tax revenues do not keep pace.  Government runs through trade-offs and leverage, both of which depend on collaboration.

Successful administrations are those who recognize that getting things done through others or using others’ money is the way to leverage the generally inadequate funds or direct power available for any given issue.  And establishing approaches whereby multiple agencies or sectors contribute to a cause (in dollars, ideas, staffing, facilities) will improve the likelihood of success.  In other words, the more entities having “skin in the game,” the greater the likelihood of success.

Some program designers seem to understand this naturally, so they build efforts requiring grant or contract recipients to provide matching funds to trigger Federal participation.  Some miss the point, though, and think an unfunded Federal mandate will produce the desired results.  Far from being collaborative, that approach is mere coercion and simply produces resentment with minimal support.

The past several years have shown the importance of grassroots efforts to political success.  Structuring a transition to emphasize broad-based participation, shared contributions, and collaboration at all levels can provide the leveraging effect to necessary to sound governance.

The second reality is that appointees have a political affinity for the new president (which that new president regards as a positive for furthering his or her agenda) but may or may not have any understanding of how the Federal government really works.  Regardless of who the next president is, the civil servants will still be there.  They will have spent decades learning how to make a large bureaucracy work and how to further the mission of their particular agency, department, division, or cause.  They are not the appointees’ enemies but are perfectly capable of determining whether something happens now or is log-rolled into the next term.  It is therefore imperative that each transition team spend some time understanding the Federal system and preparing appointees to work effectively with civil servants, particularly those in high-grade positions.

Probably the best preparation I had before accepting a senior Department of Defense position was re-watching all the episodes of the classic British series, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.  The former focused on the newly appointed head of the Ministry of Administrative Affairs (an ambitious politico named Hacker), the all-knowing civil service head of that department (Sir Humphrey Appleby), and the senior secretary who kept the office going (Bernard).  Appleby was convinced that he knew how to keep the government functioning (his highest value), while Hacker was determined to push forward bright ideas, using his non-governmental expertise.  Their efforts to outwit each other were brilliant, as well as highly instructive to anyone contemplating a senior appointment.

The series made it clear that an appointee focusing on only his administration’s desires would be confounded by laws, regulations, and traditions that boxed him in, while the civil servant focusing only on the inertial need to keep his department in a steady state would lose opportunities for improvement.  Great results occurred only when the two learned – or had — to work together.

With this background in mind, several administrative and managerial recommendations seem advisable to help ensure that the new administration can succeed:

The Office of Personnel Management should

  • Build cross-sector, cross-division, and cross-department collaboration into the qualification criteria (ECQs) for the Senior Executive Service. (Currently, collaboration appears in only one of 22 subsets of the five ECQs, suggesting minimal importance while strengthening the value of the typical occupational silos.)
  • Build cross-unit collaboration into criteria for annual bonuses for all high-grade employees. (It is axiomatic that we get more of something when we provide rewards for it. Federal executives are quick learners, and this move will have a positive effect within a year or two.)

The Office of Management and Budget should

  • Develop templates for shared budgets. (OMB should make this task easy, not force agencies to search for a tool.)
  • Develop pool of funds to help defray administrative expenses for cross-agency collaborations. (The absence of such funds helped sink the excellent Ford and Carter Administration bill that permitted recipients with contracts from multiple Federal agencies to submit the same audit to all of them, thereby saving time, money, and staff. Indeed, OMB should encourage restoration of the Joint Funding Simplification Act of 1974, with the incorporation of administrative support.)
  • Assign a pool of funds to provide resources to cross-agency collaborations on significant national issues involving three or more Federal agencies or a single Federal agency with multiple state, county, and local agencies, or nonprofit organizations. Entities wishing to collaborate are often constrained by lack of resources to establish the inter-unit administration.)
  • Encourage agencies to work together to provide guidance or programs extending beyond a single agency’s mandate, as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) Emergency Fund did with the Departments of Labor, Agriculture, and HHS.

The General Accountability Office should more widely publicize its Action Tracker, which identifies areas of fragmentation, overlap, and duplication.  The resultant sunlight would lead Federal employees to take more corrective actions and general citizens to insist on more accountability.

These steps alone will not transform government, but they will provide levers for collaboration, which in turn will enable government to be more effective and efficient.  Both Minister Hacker and Sir Humphrey would approve.

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