On September 14, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy – the last domino to fall before the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. While Congress and President George W. Bush struggled to draft a plan to rescue the American economy, the stock market would plummet by 788 points, one of the biggest losses in Wall Street history. Millions of Americans faced foreclosure or the loss of their retirement savings.
The financial crisis occurred at a uniquely vulnerable moment for the federal government: the 2008 elections were less than two months away, and President Bush was a lame duck. When President Obama ultimately took office the following January, the reins of power changed hands during one of the most difficult and delicate periods in modern times.
The nation is potentially no less fragile as it heads into the 2016 election season. Global economic conditions are uncertain following Britain’s vote on Brexit; a spate of killings involving police has led to nationwide protests and escalating violence; voters rank terrorism and the economy as their top concerns. As Americans consider their choices this November, one question should be key: Will the winner be ready to govern?
“The federal government is a $4 trillion enterprise with 4 million employees,” says Max Stier, President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. “It’s the most complicated, most important organization not just on the planet but that’s ever existed in history.”
While the policy positions candidates take tend to capture the public’s attention, the presidency is first and foremost an exercise in management. That’s why, Stier argues, the transition between administrations might be the most important period in a new presidency. And it’s a process that needs to begin long before Inauguration Day.
In January, Stier’s organization launched the Center for Presidential Transition, the first-ever organization dedicated to ensuring that presidential candidates prepare for – and understand the importance of – transition planning. It’s not just about bureaucratic management, Stier says, but a matter of national security.
WM: Why is a smooth transition so important, and why do you argue it’s a concern for national security?
Stier: In a post 9/11 world, there’s got to be a different recognition of the risk that’s involved in a hand off of power.
Our government is our tool for collective action to deal with our most critical problems, and it starts with making us safe. In the world we live in today, that responsibility is even more vital. There are so many different and unpredictable risks that we need to make sure that our leadership is in place quickly and equipped to manage the unexpected. That’s the reality we live in today.
WM: What exactly needs to happen during a transition?
Stier: One of the more fundamental aspects of transition is that the new president is responsible for selecting 4,000 political leaders for the new government.
They have to identify and vet qualified individuals for these positions, and then get over a 1,000 of them through a Senate confirmation process. If they’re smart about it, they’re not going to think just about whom they select but how they prepare them and how they get them to work effectively as a team across the entire government in order to achieve a clear set of objectives as laid out by the new leadership.
Historically, it often takes more than a year for the senior-most positions to get filled, which is very problematic in multiple ways. One, it’s hard to get your work done if you don’t have people in place to actually run the government. Two, it’s also a point of maximum vulnerability for our country when there’s a hand off of power, so there’s a national security imperative to get this done a lot faster and more effectively than is typically the case.
WM: Why isn’t transition preparedness more of an issue during campaigns?
Stier: The gravitational pull towards policy is so large, and it’s the sexy part. But getting it done – the operational part – is the hard work, and frankly, in my view, it’s the place that ought to receive the dominant amount of attention. Thomas Edison said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” The vision piece is what candidates typically run on in a campaign, but that vision is only meaningful if they can get it done.
From the political side of this, the reason that you don’t see a lot of attention on transition is because the number one job of a campaign is to win. Transition planning pre-election was also always seen as a political vulnerability, not as a priority, because it presents the risk of being accused of being presumptuous, of measuring the drapes.
WM: Should voters be taking a candidate’s transition preparedness into account?
Stier: Smart voters should be looking at not just what candidates are saying they’re going to do but also what a candidate is doing to demonstrate they’re going to be able to get it done. That’s what transitions are about. Promises are made on the campaign trail. Execution happens in government.
Understanding how a candidate is going to effectively lead the government is vital, in my view, to understanding whether they’re going to be a good president or not. In business, if you talk to any CEO of a well-run company and ask where they put the balance of their efforts – ideas or execution – they will inevitably tell you that the game is in the execution. That’s not how we treat government.
WM: What’s the role of the Center in helping the next President, whoever that may be?
Stier: One of the challenges has been not that campaigns have gotten [to transition planning] too late but they’ve gotten to it from scratch. At best they’ve had oral history to go on.
Our goal with the transition center is to provide a resource for best practices. For example, we have the Obama [transition] documents, and we have the Romney [transition] documents.
We’re also working as advocates for changes to the system itself. There are a lot of process issues that are broken. You look at what it takes to get through the confirmation process, and it’s an obstacle course that chases away a lot of good talent. It doesn’t have to be that way. Over time, our hope is that we not only provide direct service to campaign transition efforts but also serve as “Grand Central Station” for other resources that are available to the core transition actors.
WM: Have you been working with both the Clinton and Trump campaigns and are they taking the question of transition seriously?
Stier: We have found incredibly open partners in this effort from both campaigns and even before that from multiple campaigns, and that includes the Obama White House too. Both the Trump and Clinton campaigns are actively preparing for transition. They have been energetic and collaborative on this effort.