The Transition Out


There’s only a week left in the Bush Administration.  Some remaining appointees are probably feeling a bit left behind since it will be hard to find new jobs in this economy.  However, the departing team has received kudos from many in a number of areas as they try to have an effective transition process.  In fact, they seem to have read the January 2009 Harvard Business Review piece by Thomas Friel and Robert Duboff, “How to Ace Your Last 100 Days.”
Interagency Transition Councils.  Last week was the final meeting of the Presidential Transition Coordinating Council, an interagency group of high level Bush Administration officials meeting with top members of the 1,000-person Obama transition effort (which has over 100 teams!).  The coordinating council was created by executive order in October.
An interagency career-level transition council was also formed.  This seems to have been a “first” in transitions. Mid-summer, OMB asked agencies to designate a career senior executive who would be the point person for their agency during the transition.  These officials were convened as an interagency group several times to share best practices.
Tying Up Loose Ends.  The outgoing Bush Administration left some parting gifts that should help ease the incoming team’s transition by providing a baseline.  For example, last week it released two-page “performance snapshots” for each agency, which included their mission statement, organization, budget, and performance and financial results.  They’ve also tried to clean up some administrative loose ends, such as the memo attempting to streamline the security clearance process.
Accelerating Appointments.  The outgoing administration seems to be providing significant support to the incoming team in getting the incoming team cleared through administrative hurdles related to political appointments.  In 2001, only 29 officials had been confirmed and put in place after the first 100 days.  The joint goal in 2009 is to have 100 officials in place after the first 100 days.  The FBI, Office of Government Ethics, and staff in individual agencies seem to be helping.
Designating Acting Officials.  Agencies seem to be systematically designating career officials to serve in acting roles.  The agency with the best public track record to date is the Department of Homeland Security.
Practicing for the Worst.  The outgoing Administration also arranged a joint disaster exercise so the incoming officials could see what the current capacities are for handling disasters during the uncertain periods of a transition.  A major exercise was held this morning, according to the Washington Post.
Burrowing In.  The media has focused on some contentious issues such as cases where political appointees have “burrowed in” to the career civil service.  The Washington Post seems to be following this closely in a series of stories:  positions in the Interior Department were highlighted, as well as Commerce and Energy, but other positions were documented as well.
 However the instances they’ve uncovered seem to be at a lesser level than prior administrations, based on past GAO reports.
Midnight Regulations.  The White House chief of staff Josh Bolten publicly announced in mid-2008 that the Bush Administration would not issue any “midnight regulations,” at the last minute in the Administration.  Again, media reports suggest that there may have been some breaches to this policy in areas such as off-shore drilling, access to lands in the West, logging, and relaxing some consumer protection and environmental rules.  Some also lump last-minute executive orders in this category, such as Bush’s removal of certain agencies from the jurisdiction of the Federal Labor-Relations purview in December.  However, the instances of their use still seem less than in prior administrations.  Only the remaining week will tell, though!
Pardons.  President Bush has been historically parsimonious in his use of pardons.  His use has increased in recent months, but a recent snafu in examining candidates led to one person being pardoned who had his pardon rescinded the next day after there was a hint of possible impropriety in his release.  Again, there’s a week left, but it seems he has used this power sparingly.  Still, maybe he’ll pardon those in the Clinton Administration who removed the “W” keys from the White House computers during the last transition!
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When the history of the Obama Transition is written, likely much will be made of how organized it was and how it made effective use of its early days in office.  The outgoing team, though, will likely have a positive footnote in that history.  It would be a great step if some academics – or insiders from both the Bush and Obama teams — were to document the Obama transition effort to validate the impressions I’ve gotten, but more importantly to capture best practices that future presidents and transition teams might use.


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