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Preparing the next president for the future

February 22, 2016 (Photo Credit: Tannen Maury/Getty Images)

It’s mid-winter of 2018…two weeks after a cyberattack of unknown origin shuts down electrical power in most of three Northeastern states. Thanks to the quick work of the Department of Homeland Security and state and local first responders, power is restored in less than two days, but the country is in a panic. The president, in office less than a year, convenes an emergency meeting of the National Security Council and gives them a deceptively simple charge: “Give me a plan to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” 

Will the new administration be ready for this? Will those who lead our federal government — elected, appointed, and career — be prepared? 
Presidential transition is all about hitting the ground running. When a new president takes the oath of office this time next year, we expect our chief executive to be ready to govern: to have a clear sense of purpose, a compelling set of priorities, and a top-notch team ready to take the field. That’s the mark of an effective transition plan. 

However, the future doesn’t always cooperate. Without warning, an administration must be ready on day one to deal with everything from the immediacy of a natural disaster or cyberattack to the slow boil of a national economic crisis or a geopolitical confrontation. Thus, transition is more than just the short-term challenge of getting through that first 100 days or pushing through the first 200 appointments. It also needs to be about preparing for what’s over the horizon…not just over the next month or two, but also over the next term or two. 

How can the next administration prepare for that complex, chaotic, uncertain future? Among other things, it can practice for it by taking a lesson from the military. Our armed forces use ‘war games’ and exercises to prepare for virtually every eventuality. So too do those who respond to emergencies, both natural and manmade. It’s really straightforward in concept: create a scenario depicting some future challenge or crisis and use it to prepare those who would be responsible for responding to it. 

This same methodology can prepare a new administration for the long game. A good, short-term transition plan is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. It also needs a little strategic foresight…something not traditionally considered part of presidential transition.

That’s why, as part of the National Academy of Public Administration’s Transition 2016 initiative, our two organizations will sponsor a series of strategic foresight simulations: realistic, scenario-based table-top exercises designed to demonstrate how the 45th president and his or her administration can prepare for the worst — and sometimes the best — by practicing for them before they may actually occur. For example: 

  • How would we go about ‘hardening’ our critical infrastructure after a debilitating cyberattack shuts down part of our electrical power grid? 
  • How would we confront the zero-sum fiscal implications of a ‘New Cold War’ defense budget in that must be carved out of massive, entitlement-driven deficits? 
  • How would we deal with the unintended consequences of a series of medical breakthroughs in that dramatically increase the average citizen’s life span to more than 100?  

However, as compelling as those scenarios may be, the idea is not really to try and forecast the future. We know that’s impossible. Rather, our objective is to show the importance of preparing those who will lead our nation for whatever comes their way. The true value of war games is not so much in prediction as it is in preparation. And because these exercises are artificial by definition, they offer a safe place to test options and relationships, and perhaps more importantly, to fail at both.

In April, we’ll begin a four-part Academy Presidential Transition Simulation Series planned for the spring, summer, and fall of 2016. The simulations will feature some of our nation’s most respected experts in the inner workings of government, each playing the role of a future administration official or other stakeholder, all pitted against one of these wicked ‘whole of nation’ challenges. The exercises will be coordinated by the chairman of the Transition 2016 Strategic Foresight Panel John Kamensky.

Bottom line: New administrations (as well as experienced ones) invariably struggle in times of stress, and we believe that strategic simulations can play an especially important role in presidential transition and beyond. Not just to prepare for a crisis — that’s something government has learned to do pretty well — but also to ready our new leaders for the major policy and implementation issues that are just around the corner.  

Dan Blair is president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration and Ron Sanders is vice president and a fellow with Booz Allen Hamilton.

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