Managing Through a Transition

After an election, it is critical to prime your staff for a transition. Otherwise, anxious public employees will give more sway to rumors.
August 23, 2006 AT 3:00 AM
By Scott D. Pattison  |  Contributor
Executive director and CEO of the National Governors Association

Even though this year's elections are still weeks away, senior government managers in states and localities should be thinking about the day after the election -- the day when the inevitable transition from one administration to another begins. During a transition period, there is enormous uncertainty and anxiety among career employees. Hopefully, the transition in your state or city will go smoothly, but be prepared for some tense and difficult moments.

It is critical to prime your staff for the upcoming transition. During these times, you may not think that employees in non-political positions worry much, but they are often very anxious about upcoming changes. Make sure they understand that transitions can be unpredictable and that they should be wary of rumors of personnel or organizational changes until they are formally announced. After the election, career staff will be better equipped to deal with the uncertainty if they are kept informed of any resulting major personnel and policy announcements. Don't assume they will find out on their own -- develop a system to keep your staff up-to-date. For example, as soon as transition-team press releases are released, e-mail them to all staff.

As you prepare for the transition, be cognizant of the perspective of the new administration people coming in. They are exhausted from a long and busy campaign, but they are also giddy from victory. In some cases, they will be suspicious of the outgoing administration, including the senior career staff. The fact that all current government employees have served the outgoing administration may be sufficient for some transition staffers to be wary. Be forthcoming and provide solid, neutral information on upcoming challenges facing the new administration and basic facts about the structure of your government agency and its activities. By doing so, you should be able to overcome any suspicions that the incoming administration staff may have. The campaign may have focused on issues such as tax cuts or abortion -- so don't assume the incoming administration is aware of existing matters, such as a contract dispute with a neighboring state over water rights or the impending full capacity of the prison system.

Think about the best way to provide information to the transition team. Having served on several such gubernatorial teams, I'm not a fan of the ubiquitous "briefing books" developed by agencies during a transition; I know they are rarely read in full. Even so, the transition team will be expecting information, so I recommend developing briefing books in an easy-to-read format, with detailed indexes and short executive summaries throughout. Think carefully about how much staff time you want to devote to the briefing books. Keep in mind the story of the diligent staff person who told me that she stayed up late many nights preparing an elaborate briefing book for an incoming education cabinet secretary. Weeks after the inaugural, the enthusiastic staffer asked the new cabinet secretary what she thought of the briefing book. "Oh," the cabinet secretary replied, "I didn't have time to read it."

A transition may be the best time for an examination of your own career goals. Mary Campbell, a senior aide to two Washington State governors, recommends that, during a transition, senior career civil servants think strategically about their careers, asking themselves, "Do I want to stay? Does the transition offer me an opportunity to make a change?"

Finally, remember to put aside certain assumptions. Just expect the unexpected. For example, don't assume that if the incoming administration is from the same party as the outgoing things will go smoothly. In my experience, party affiliation makes no difference. Some of the rockiest transitions can be in the family -- i.e., between executives of the same party.

Transitions can be difficult, but if government managers develop strategies even before the election results on how best to deal with staff anxiety and a potentially distrustful incoming transition team, they can get through it. One thing to keep in mind: good or bad, transitions are temporary.