The engine of presidential transition has rumbled to life.

Campaigns are standing up transition teams. Agencies that have a direct role such as the General Services Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, and Office of Government Ethics, are gearing up. Federal agencies are naming career transition leaders and identifying people to serve in acting capacities. Even Congress jumped in to help with recent legislation that enhances transition preparation.

These are encouraging signs and reflect increased attention on transition as the magnitude and importance of the task — and the risks from doing it poorly — have been illuminated.

The recent release of President Barack Obama's transition executive order is another important step. It delineates the role of the White House and agencies, and sets up a two-tiered system of preparation. Interestingly, it also invites transition teams to participate in both of the transition councils. The order also emphasizes the importance of career leadership during the transition importance through a focus on succession planning and preparation of acting leaders.

The experience of conducting a transition during an active conflict, and in the midst of the financial crisis of 2008-09, is reflected in the administration's approach. As the beneficiary in 2008 of what has been described as the smoothest transition in history, President Obama's order signals his intent to pay it forward with his own administration's preparations.

The White House Transition Coordinating Council, chaired by Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, will set overall policy and levels of engagement with the campaign transition teams. The council will also provide guidance on White House specific transition activities, such as presidential personnel, and coordinate national security and economic policy preparations.

The Agency Transition Directors Council will be co-chaired by the federal transition coordinator, GSA senior career executive Tim Horne, and the OMB deputy director for management — Andrew Mayock has been nominated for this role but not yet confirmed.

The Federal Transition Coordinator will sit on each council to ensure consistent interpretation and execution of transition planning.

The membership of the two councils reflects their respective focus areas. The White House Transition Coordinating Council will consist of senior White House personnel (including Presidential Personnel Office), appointed leaders from national security, economic policy, OMB, GSA and the federal transition coordinator. The council will:

  • Provide guidance on outgoing transition such as succession planning and briefing materials.
  • Set the rules of engagement between the outgoing administration and transition teams.
  • Conduct tabletop exercises on emergency response.

In addition to the federal transition coordinator and OMB deputy director for management as co-chairs, and transition team representatives, the membership of the Agency Transition Directors Council will include a senior career executive from each CFO Act agency, representatives from other agencies selected by the co-chairs, the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Government Ethics and NARA. The Transition Directors Council is tasked with:

  • Creating an interagency strategy for transition preparation — including career succession planning.
  • Providing guidance to agencies on the preparation of briefing materials for the incoming administration (to be prepared no later than Nov.ember​ 1).
  • Ensuring agencies prepare career officials who are placed into acting leadership capacities during the transition.

The executive order also makes mention of the potentially important role of the President’s Management Council (PMC) in fulfilling agency transition activities.

In a nod to the work of outside organizations, including the Partnership for Public Service(which has led the push for more rigorous transition planning) the National Academy of Public Administrationand the IBM Center for the Business of Government, the order green


​lights the White House Council to speak with outside individuals and organizations that have expertise in transition.

The release of President Obama’s executive order sets into motion the next stage of transition planning and provides the framework under which that planning will be conducted.

Much work remains to be done, still, the early activity by a number of key actors in the transition process provides reason for optimism. Perhaps this year will surpass 2008 to claim the title as the "best transition in history."

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