There are some stirring in different agencies with regard to preparation for the transition.
Department of Labor
Last week I had the opportunity to participate in the Department of Labor’s annual conference of its entire senior executive corps. A large chunk of the meeting focused on the upcoming presidential transition and how it might affect the work of the Department. About two-thirds of the Department’s career senior executives are new to their roles since the last transition in 2000. So there was a lot of interest in the topic!
I was invited to provide an overview of the four stages of the transition process and provide some insights as to the potential effects of the transition on the department, its programs, and for career executives. The interesting part, though, was a panel of seasoned senior executives from the Department, some of who noted that their first transition was between Presidents Nixon and Ford.
The panelists noted that every transition they had been through was different but they had some insights based on accumulated wisdom:
• Departing officials need to know what records they can take and what they must leave behind.
• Agency staff should be helpful to the post-election transition team but work through pre-determined channels that are defined by the outgoing administration and the incoming transition teams. A note of caution was offered. Because the post-election transition team is likely not comprised of federal employees, agency staff cannot share certain documents. If they share information, even informally, with the team about pre-decisional budget materials, pending lawsuits, etc., the government may be waiving its privilege to keep that information out of the public eye and it may be subject to public release of that information under the Freedom of Information Act. This could jeopardize law enforcement actions, or other normally confidential proceedings.
• The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 defined the issue of “who’s in charge” during the transition. The incoming president can appoint an official to be in charge in an “acting” capacity at least temporarily, but absent that, the highest-ranking career official will temporarily hold the job, but not necessarily in an “acting” capacity. Most agencies define an order of succession before the transition occurs. In Labor, one political appointee was left behind from the Clinton Administration until President Bush’s Secretary of Labor was confirmed, then that person resigned.
• Field staff tends to feel some anxiety about what is happening during the transition in Washington. The panelists’ advice was: continue doing their job, and continue applying the law (e.g., in enforcement actions) but keep the new team apprised of what is going on.
• The panelists encouraged their fellow senior executives to make an extra effort to communicate with field staff during the transition – share what they know about what the new team is asking questions about, describe any changes to the decision-making process, and fix any web pages with the names of recently departed officials!
• The panelists observed that there will be a period where trust between the new political appointees and the career executives will have to be re-built. They mentioned the 120-day “getting to know you” period where new politicals cannot move a career executive to a different position involuntarily.
• They noted that they should all be ready to answer a lot of questions that start with “Why?”
Assistant Secretary Patrick Pizzella offered that the Department was in the process of establishing an internal transition team in accordance with guidance from the President’s Management Council. This process will define briefing book formats, etc., but will also determine which career executives will provide leadership during the transition period. The goal is to ensure a smooth transition – and when the new team asks for information, the answer isn’t “this hasn’t been updated in a few years.”
One of the senior executives, Shelby Hallmark, shared an interesting insight with his peers: that for the career senior executives, “the transition is our largest opportunity to serve.” He observed that mid-level managers, especially those new to government, who have never been through a presidential transition, will turn to their senior executives for guidance on how to engage the new leadership. It’s a period when the career executives become the cross-roads for information and they need to be especially mindful of this during the transition period.
What’s going on in other agencies in regard to preparation for the transition?
• The Washington Post had a story about the Justice Department’s commitments yesterday.
• Federal Times is interested in knowing as well. It dedicated a webpage to tracking what is happening at the agency level. There haven’t been any posts to the page so far, though.
• There has been a lot of congressional interest, beyond the homeland security arena where Congress has already required transition planning in law. Several agencies have received congressional inquiries asking for copies of transition plans. A Senate committee plans to hold a hearing in the next few weeks to quiz the Administration on its broader plans.
• I understand that the President’s Management Council and the Office of Management and Budget are putting the final touches on a government-wide guidance memo that will be going out shortly. No scorecard, though!