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Commentary: Management is key to a good transition

By Douglas A. Brook In March, President Obama signed the Presidential Transitions Improvement Act, which requires the outgoing president to put together a transition apparatus six months before Election Day.

By Douglas A. Brook

In March, President Obama signed the Presidential Transitions Improvement Act, which requires the outgoing president to put together a transition apparatus six months before Election Day.

Presumptive GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has named New Jersey's Gov. Christie to head his transition preparations. Hillary Clinton will soon follow with hers.

The candidates are preparing for the postconvention period, when the government will provide them with office space and equipment, information technology, and staff assistance.

Transition leaders face two essential tasks: assembling information about government agencies, programs, and budgets to turn over to the leaders of the new administration, and finding and recruiting some 4,000 political appointees to lead the new government, including about 1,000 senior positions that require Senate confirmation.

That noise coming from inside the Beltway is the sound of resumés being dusted off.

In both parties, aspirants to government jobs are developing their strategies to secure a presidential appointment, including flooding the transition offices with resumés, letters from congressional supporters, and phone calls from political friends. These job-seekers will come from the campaigns, Capitol Hill, think tanks, universities, law firms, lobbying organizations, business corporations, and labor unions. Many will have policy expertise, fewer will have management experience, and even fewer will have had any experience managing the large, complex organizations found in the federal government.

Presidents come to office with policy ideas, and political appointees are expected to provide policy leadership for these ideas in their agencies and departments. But ideas are not enough. A president needs talented people to implement them and to make sure the government is capable of performing the tasks its citizens expect.

Some appointees, therefore, will hold positions with significant management responsibility that involve the marshaling and deployment of resources - budgets, personnel, facilities, inventories - to achieve governmental objectives. And for the most part, there is no particular training or knowledge passed down that helps them move into these assignments.

As a result, on-the-job training at the highest and most consequential levels imaginable often is the result. Failures in management can be costly for presidents in both politics and policy. Recall only recently the cost of management failures in the response to Hurricane Katrina or the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

Paul Light of New York University, writing for the Volcker Alliance, identified and examined 48 government breakdowns since the year 2000. He ranked five plausible causes for these breakdowns in this order of impact: policy, resources, organizational culture, structure, and leadership. Arguably, after policy, the remaining four factors are related to management.

Policy is important, and presidential transitions must focus on recruiting politically congruent talent to advance the president-elect's policy and political agenda. But new presidential administrations often lack appreciation for the direct link between policy success and the sound management. Indeed, most presidential administrations have experienced unexpected management failures, some of which have created political firestorms, set back policy initiatives, or undermined public confidence in the government.

This is why it is essential for the next president, during the transition and after taking office, to recruit and place capable political executives with management experience in critical management and operational positions. In a report we wrote for the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service, my colleague Maureen Hartney and I made these key recommendations for the transition:

Identify those positions to be filled by Senate-confirmed presidential appointees that involve significant management responsibility and require management experience.

Ensure that nominees for these positions have the necessary managerial experience to do the job.

Institute an intensive training process for management appointees that goes beyond standard appointee orientations and focuses on management priorities, the government's management apparatus, and the management issues facing their agencies.

If they begin now, there is plenty of time for the transition teams to put such a plan in place. It is important for their ultimate success to accept the challenges of management as an early and continuing high priority.

So, experienced managers - dust off those resumés and dream of flags and corner offices.

Douglas A. Brook, a visiting professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, has served in four presidentially appointed positions.