The Grand Gurus of Transition

By Shackleton, Anne Marie | The Public Manager, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

The Grand Gurus of Transition


Shackleton, Anne Marie, The Public Manager


How new officials learn the importance of career service employees and key nonprofits in implementing their agenda and gain a leg up in achieving their objectives.

The modern period of United States presidential transitions began in 1933, with the passage of the 20th amendment to the Constitution, which moved inauguration day from March 4 to January 20. Since that time, presidential transitions have been complicated by changes in presidential parties. With the exception of the 1988 election, where heir-apparent George Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan, each newly-elected president has won a contested election against a designated successor or an incumbent president. As a result, incoming administrations have been reluctant to take counsel from the outgoing administrations.

The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA)--as well as other established nonprofit organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Council for Presidential Studies--attempts to fill this gap by providing nonpartisan information on the process of transition. A congressionally-chartered nonprofit, the Academy elects its fellows based on achievement in public service. Coming from practical and academic backgrounds, with both career civil servants and political appointees, and balanced between Republicans and Democrats, the academy's fellows have legitimacy with many actors in the transition drama.

While a large number of organizations take advantage of presidential transitions to advance their issues-oriented agenda, relatively few organizations provide transition teams with the information necessary to assume power without unduly disrupting the necessary functions of government and at the same time increasing their chances for effectively advancing the new political agenda.

This year NAPA has sponsored a number of projects looking at the process of transition. It is hosting a web page on transitions and has sponsored a number of forums and information exchanges. Among them was a panel held in conjunction with the Human Resources (HR) Transitions Conference. The panel featured four academy fellows who have served in numerous transitions: Thomas McFee, a former assistant secretary for personnel administration at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); David (Doc) Cooke, director of administration and management for the Office of the Secretary of Defense; Walter Broadnax, dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University and a former deputy secretary at HHS; and James Pfiffner, professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

Two Transitions Occur

The panel observed that changes of power result in two separate transitions: the transition of the outgoing administration and that of the incoming administration. Appropriately enough, the transition of the incoming administration usually receives most of the public attention. From the standpoint of administration, however, the needs of the outgoing administration also demand consideration. Many issues confronting these departing officials are legally mandated or regulated actions.

There are many other practices that while not mandated are customary and help ensure the smooth transfer of power. Most of these issues relate to personnel. The separation of political appointees of the outgoing administration is covered by many regulations. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) provides extensive information on the separation process (such as sample separation notices) on its website. Within this regulated environment, however, there is a fair amount of diversity in agency practice. For example, some agencies conduct outplacement interviews.

At a meeting of federal human resources directors, held by the academy and the International Personnel Management Association, one department representative told the group the departing political appointees were very interested in the information provided on post-employment ethics.

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