Transition Lessons: Pre- and Post-Election


White HouseScholars have studied presidential transitions over the past 40 years, which I’ve reflected in several earlier blog posts. While it might seem to be an obscure niche of scholarship, their efforts have been vitally important every 4 to 8 years. What have they learned that could be helpful to the upcoming transition?

Dr. Martha Kumar and several of her colleagues collaborated in 2001 on an interesting paper summarizing their years of work up to that point.

First, they note that the institutional presidency matters. However, the absence of any institutional memory in the White House that accompanies a transition means the incoming president needs to rely on veterans of previous White House operations in order to be effective. Think tanks can help provide some insights into the institutional presidency, but people with experience are vital.

Second, they caution that having a good pre-election transition planning effort is not necessarily predictive of an effective post-election effort. They point to several past transitions where the pre-election and post-election transition players were not well-connected with either the candidate or the campaigns and this caused the post-election transition efforts to stumble.


The literature on past transitions is helpful and offers several lessons:

Build a Bridge.A key pre-election step is to ensure there is trust between the leadership of the campaign staff and the pre-election transition planning group. The most publicized disconnect occurred when president-elect Jimmy Carter’s hand-chosen pre-election transition planner was displaced after the election. The most effective was the George W. Bush transition, where a close friend led the effort both before and after the election.

Watch Commitments. A second important cautionary note raised by academic observers is for the candidate to avoid making commitments that will constrain their ability to govern. The classic example is Bill Clinton’s campaign promise to cut the White House staff by 25 percent and to impose strict ethics pledge on his appointees (which reportedly led many capable people to reject offers to join the Administration, and which was repealed in the waning days of his Administration so leaving officials could find employment).

Draw Up a List. A third lesson was the importance of developing a list of key positions to be filled, and the order in which groups of appointments should be decided upon. There are about 7,800 political positions, of which about half are part-time jobs on boards and commissions. The transition team will receive between 40,000 and 70,000 resumes to fill these jobs. About 1,200 are appointments requiring Senate confirmation (cabinet secretaries, assistant secretaries, judges, ambassadors, district attorneys, US marshals). About 1,400 are Schedule C; 800 non-career Senior Executives; and 800 White House staff. GSA will work with the pre-election transition teams to identify automated software to handle the post-election surge.

While figuring out which jobs to fill first will be important, but equally important is coming up with a selection process that is seen as fair by those rejected. Past experience shows that a process seen as unfair leads to end-runs and a breakdown in the process itself.


What about post-election? Flipping the switch from campaigning to governing means the new president-elect needs to be up and running day after election. He or she will have 77 days to form a White House staff, designate senior cabinet officials, prepare an inaugural address, define an agenda, and begin developing a $3 trillion budget to send to Congress.

About 600 staff can be involved in a transition – some paid, and many volunteers. But this number varies greatly. The Reagan transition involved more than double that number while the George H.W. Bush transition was about half that size. Observers say that about 600 for a transition between parties seem to be a manageable number.

Pick Key White House Staff.Academic observers say a key lesson is that the selection of top White House staff should be the first order. When that did not happen, there was endless jockeying for position and little commitment to substantive action on the president-elect’s policy agenda. If the key goal during the transition is to develop a set of policy initiatives and a decision-making process to be used in the early White House, then the president-elect needs to have key White House staffing decisions out of the way. Focusing on the selection, vetting, confirmation process for the 15 cabinet members is seen as secondary.

Develop Policy Proposal Process. A second lesson is the importance of developing a strategic plan for the policy proposals to be put in place. This means developing a prioritization and decision-making process – and only then focusing on substance. An advantage of having these in place early is that they can also be used as a screen to help hire new appointees and get their buy-in up front on the president-elect’s agenda. The most effective policy teams have a plan for the first 3 weeks, the next 3 months, and the following 6 months.

Decide on Governance Style.A third lesson is making some early institutional decisions on how the president-elect wants to govern. It is easier to make these decisions at the outset rather than having to change course later. These decisions would include questions such as:

  • What is the role of the cabinet vs. White House policy councils?
  • What should be the role of key staff (e.g., will the chief of staff be an honest broker, a gate keeper, a controller of the information flow, a step in the decision-making process, etc.)?

Learn From the Outgoing Team. A fourth lesson is taking the time to glean lessons from the outgoing team. This is more likely to happen at the top levels, since the mid-level positions in most agencies will not be filled for 6 to 9 months. The outgoing team will have an institutional sense of responsibility, but past experience says the incoming team generally won’t be interested in listening to them (I know; I had first hand experience being ignored). These lessons are all useful and grounded in practice. Dr. Kumar and her colleagues are in the process of updating their research and this will be available this Fall to the incoming transition teams.

If you’ve had experience with a transition, what advice would you add?


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