The Do's and Dont's for Planning a Transition of Power

New governors can learn a thing or two from presidential transitions.

President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump shake hands after their meeting in the White House on Nov. 10, 2016.
(AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
“The peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next is a hallmark of American democracy. But under the surface, the transition is rushed and chaotic.”

It would be hard to find observers of the management of transitions who disagree with that statement -- even when it applies to governors.

The statement is from the Center for Presidential Transition, a first-of-its-kind organization established last year by the Partnership for Public Service in order to offer guidance for the new administration. Its advisory board included members from both parties as well as both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. 

As eight states get new executive leaders this year, it seems like there's a lot that governors and their staffs can learn from the center's work. Transitions represent a unique opportunity for a new administration to consider what it really wants to accomplish and how.

"[It's] the only time available for teams to get together to figure out how the government could work," said David Eagles, the center's director. "Why would anyone waste that time? Why not be ready to govern on day one?"

According to Eagles, these are some of the keys to a good transition:

  • Start early: Meetings to begin this work at the presidential level began a year ago;
  • Build a base for an enduring relationship with the legislature;
  • Coordinate a trusted connection with the campaign; and
  • Establish trusting and productive communications with the career public workforce.
But all of that is easier said than done.

"There’s little about how to do this well, which is particularly a problem given the limited resources available," said Eagles.

One concrete piece of advice that emanated from the center’s work is to line up candidates for cabinet, and even sub-cabinet, positions as quickly as possible -- ideally by Inauguration Day. This is a tall order, but Eagles' research makes the case that it’s achievable and can make a difference when a new administration takes place. Government cannot begin to effectively make executive branch changes, evaluate legislative proposals or respond to citizen needs until its appointments have reached a critical mass. The alternative is to have goals but with no effective means for translating them into action.

That's one deadline; here's another: New executive leaders should have a management plan to enable policy goals by the February after their election. Once again, not an easy task. But if the new administration already has cabinet and sub-cabinet jobs filled, it’s much more doable. 

Eagles also recommends something so simple that it seems like it doesn't need to be said: Use checklists often and early.

"Checklists let us manage this process strategically to manage the roles you need to fill, to have job titles and salaries already in place," he said.

One of the surprises of the center’s research was the willingness of transition staffs, of both parties, to participate.

“I’m really excited to see that they can leave their swords at the door when it comes to governing the country," he said. Starting in 2008, "we’ve got the earliest coordination strategy ever in history."

Remember, of course, that this all has to do with making a transition smoother and more effective -- it’s not intended to influence the outcomes of the process or the preferences of the new officeholder. 

These pieces of advice are all rather positive. But it’s also important to consider what not to do during a political transition. 

William Leighty, the chief of staff for former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and his successor Tim Kaine, previously talked to us about a few of the landmines that are worth repeating. For one, he counseled incoming governors to avoid blaming their problems on their predecessor. He also advised governors to always keep in mind “that everything you say or do is under a microscope, being carefully watched by the press as well as your political opponents.”

And finally, he cautioned new leaders to eschew “acts of arrogance.” As Leighty told us, it’s not wise to “come in and build exorbitant offices or install plush new drapes.”

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this mistakenly stated that President Obama started the Center for Presidential Transition.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this had two different spellings for David Eagles.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.