The Transition Challenges New Governors Will Face

The winners of last week's elections don't have long to build their new administrations. They need to move quickly and effectively.
November 12, 2018
J.B. Pritzker
Democratic Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker speaks at his victory party after beating Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner. (AP/Nam Y. Huh)
By Navjot Singh  |  Contributor
Leader of McKinsey's state and local public-sector practice in North America
By Anusha Dhasarathy  |  Contributor
A partner with Digital McKinsey in Chicago

This January, newly elected governors will take office in 20 states. The governance for spending hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money will hang on the smooth transitions of those administrations, as will the success or failure of the policy initiatives these new governors advocated in their campaigns.

During the transition period between election day and inauguration, governors-elect must begin the difficult task of reconciling state-level economic and political realities with campaign promises. And because the first 100 days or so in office can set the tone for the rest of a governor's term, that period warrants careful planning as well. But new administrations often stumble in the early days. Transition planning sometimes starts slowly. Many vacant positions may remain unfilled, and governors may struggle to build momentum as campaign promises and policy decisions languish.

State governments also face a unique challenge because they must respond during times of crisis, whether a natural disaster or a human-caused incident such as a terrorist attack or mass shooting. In the worst-case scenario, a crisis for which a new administration might be woefully unprepared hits in the first 100 days, derailing the administration into investing significant effort in response and recovery just at the time it needs to focus on its policy initiatives.

At the national level, presidential transitions follow a process mandated by the 1963 Presidential Transition Act. But gubernatorial transitions typically have received less attention from governors-elect.

At the state level, once transition teams have established how to manage themselves, they have an opportunity to up their game by focusing on three activities in these early days: setting aspirations, managing risk and building the administration's team:

Setting aspirations: The transition period offers the opportunity to translate campaign promises into an action plan for delivering on them. Specifically, it's the time for governors-elect to set the agenda for addressing their top priorities. Clarity of vision and a focus on desired outcomes accelerates progress toward success. The newly elected governor can then work with the transition team to plan concrete steps to achieve those priorities.

Managing risks: Over the past five years, our analysis suggests, more than one-third of new gubernatorial administrations experienced crises threatening public safety or governmental operations within the first 100 days. Governors-elect should use the transition period to review risks facing their states and red-flag those that they are least prepared to handle. This review lays the foundation for developing risk prevention and mitigation plans and creating a crisis-response operation.

Building the team: During the transition period, governors-elect and their transition staff have an opportunity to define the operating model of their new administrations. This requires answering a host of questions. What, for example, are the responsibilities of a chief of staff? What are the appropriate reporting structures between agency leads and the governor's office?

Building a team with the right mix of expertise, diversity and energy takes time. The transition period gives the newly elected governor time to make key political appointments and develop relationships by shortlisting, assessing and interviewing candidates. Our analysis suggests that on average more than three top-level administration positions are still vacant when new governors take office, with 20 percent of those governors still having between 10 and 20 top-level appointments to make. The sooner the team-building effort begins, the better.

Focusing on these three activities crucial to successful transitions may seem like obvious things to do, but they are not so easy to do well. It's difficult for candidates in the throes of an election campaign to invest time or mind-share in transition planning. But early planning can help build a team that can organize, plan and begin to deliver on campaign promises from the first day in office. Sometimes it is all about doing the obvious things well.

Jonathan Law and Adi Kumar, partners in McKinsey & Company's Public and Social Sector Practice, contributed to this column.

Navjot Singh | Contributor  |  @Nav_Imagine
Anusha Dhasarathy | Contributor