The Obama transition teams are completing their “parachute” visits to agencies to find out what is the lay of the land. This is largely policy-focused. Reports are generally favorable about how the outgoing team is being helpful.
But the next big step will be preparing new appointees, once in place, to manage their agencies. The Council for Excellence in Government (CEG) put together a useful history of how presidential appointees and White House staff are brought up to speed.
The CEG history notes that: “eight of the ten U.S. Presidents between 1953 and 2004 -including the last six – organized a variety of projects to prepare their high-level political appointees for the operational challenges of leadership. In 2000, for the first time, Congress recognized the value of ongoing appointee orientation by authorizing this activity under the Presidential Transition Act of 2000 and appropriating funds for its design and implementation.
“It is important to understand that past orientation efforts differed widely in scope, content, durability and location. There was little carry-over or continuity from one administration to another. But they show that appointee preparation has become a fixture on the agendas of successive administrations. This is an important and positive development. Appointees, after all, are the women and men entrusted not only with the day-to-day political leadership of the executive branch but also with the responsibility for the management and performance of government departments and agencies.”
What’s covered in the orientations? There is general agreement that “Half a dozen subject areas were central to all of the programs and were nearly always the focus of speaker and panel presentations. They were: (1) the White House and the President’s executive office – operations, relationships with agencies, and coordination on policy decisions; (2) the budget and OMB; (3) legislative affairs and dealing with the Congress; (4) media relations; (5) the career civil service; and (6) ethics.
Other areas were covered in briefing books, live presentations, or both: economic and domestic policy development, managing for results, the National Security Council, interest groups, public trust, Presidential personnel, and the U.S. Constitution.”
The advice from past administrations is that such orientations should be supported by the President and be made as “mandatory as possible.” One approach, used by President Reagan, was that he made himself available after orientation sessions for a handshake and photo with each appointee who attended. There is no optimal time for delivering the training – before or after confirmation – but many felt that it was best delivered after appointees had been in the job 3-4 months. It can sometimes be done in several sessions rather than just one.
Orientations Underway. Outside groups are already beginning orientations – for career senior executives! It turns out that as much as two-thirds of current career executives have not experienced a presidential transition. The National Academy for Public Administration is sponsoring a session today; the Council for Excellence in Government and the Senior Executives Association are sponsoring a seminar on January 6th.
The Presidential Transition Act of 2000 provides funding for appointee orientations. The incoming Obama Administration will likely make its decisions on who will deliver the training, and when, once it is in office.