Best Practices in Presidential Transitions: Planning, Process, People and Partnership

By Shea, Robert | The Journal of Government Financial Management, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Best Practices in Presidential Transitions: Planning, Process, People and Partnership


Shea, Robert, The Journal of Government Financial Management


Truth be told, there aren't a lot of available "best practices" in presidential transitions. They happen rarely and, though they're getting better and better, each one happens at a different time, under different circumstances and with different leaders, so it's not one-size-fits-all. In numerous gatherings over the past year, the topic of presidential transition was raised, with many asking, "What do you do first? How can you enable a successful transition?" So, in penning this piece on best practices in presidential transitions, I asked a handful of some of the most thoughtful people I know who've participated in past transitions to help me identify those practices.1

The responses, while diverse, had a lot in common. And four clear themes emerged: planning, process, people and partnership.

The first theme is planning. An incoming administration has as few as four years to accomplish its ambitious agenda. Setting clear short-, medium- and long-terms goals is essential to ensure a successful transition and that campaign promises are met. The Partnership for Public Service's Max Stier said, "Develop a management agenda along with the inevitable policy agenda." Former Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Deputy Director for Management Clay Johnson made a strong point about what was realistic during the short transition: "Set clear, mutually agreeable, realistically aggressive (i.e., not ideal) goals for what the transition is to accomplish, by whom, led by whom, as opposed to planning to do as much possible in the short time available." The bottom line is: the transition and the new administration will need a clear plan and goals to guide its operations. Ignoring this important step is a recipe for chaos.

Part of having a good plan is ensuring there's a clear and deliberate process for decision-making. White House Transition Project Director Martha Kumar firmly recommends that the new administration have "a decision-making system in place within two weeks of the election: the White House comes first in order for there to be a solid decision-making system in place." Unless such a process is in place quickly, the flood of decisions to be made will likely overwhelm the new team.

To be successful, the new administration needs good people. Former Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David Chu recommends getting "key appointees nominated to the Senate in January and February." Johnson is more specific: "[Get] the most important 75-100 Senate-confirmed positions filled by late-February, and the most important 350-400 positions filled by the August recess. …

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