Having been through several transitions of government, I can report it’s pretty much like everything else that goes on in Washington: Like sausage, it’s probably best not to see it made.
Perhaps the best mental picture for a transition is that scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy and her crew are urged to “pay no attention” to the man making all the smoke and noise.
Here are the key parts of it to know about and watch:
(1) Usually “no one’s home” for the outgoing administration: This means exactly what it suggests - most of the knowledgeable political appointees from the Bush administration at the working policy levels (e.g., assistant and deputy assistant secretaries, undersecretaries, etc.) are long gone and are already fitting themselves into their next political gig (e.g., Hill, lobby or law firm job) - that is if they have stayed around town at all.
And, the ones who are still here physically - if it’s like past transitions - have put themselves on terminal leave to look for work, and have no intention of returning to participate in a transition. Finally, at least in the past, many higher-level appointees have viewed it as “beneath them” to sit down with the other political party’s transition team people, so they just don’t.
(2) This leaves the job to the senior career people in the department or agency being “transitioned,” which creates its own set of problems and inherent conflict of interests. Why, you might ask? Easy, put yourself in the position of these people - all of whom want to: (a) keep the senior position they have now, and make themselves essential to the new political leadership and perhaps move up in the organization; and (b) distance themselves from the policies and practices of the out-going administration.
So, what kind of policy “objectivity” can be expected - for example - from the senior career (called Senior Executive Service or “SES”) people who end up with the lion’s share of the time with the incoming transition team? My experience - with four transitions - is very, very little.
In fact, the most important thing for the senior SES in a transition is to hang on to his/her job and title, office “empire,” “people,” accesses (i.e., “face time”) and other “perks” of their senior rank. And - especially if they were marginalized or slighted by the past administration - to serve as informants for the new administration.
(3) The new administration’s transition team that goes into a particular department or agency is typically comprised of young, ambitious campaign or Hill staff people who are themselves looking to get a senior political appointment in the new administration - and in the very department or agency that they are transitioning. So, you can imagine the “spin” they want to put on the transition report they write: That the department or agency needs someone just like them to assume a leadership role in the department - to “straighten things out.” In fact, there often is an unspoken complicity of the anxious, but in-place career SES and the ambitious transition team member: A simple “trade” of the continuity of the SES for the careerist’s endorsement of the transition team’s “take” on what is needed to “fix” the department for the new administration.
(4) Sometimes there are strong personal feelings between the outgoing and the incoming administrations, which translate into how the transition “works.” And, perhaps surprisingly, these don’t seem to track with the politics of the matter.
Some examples: In the early 1990s, pundits and insiders alike remarked on the civility of the “turnover” of government between outgoing George H.W. Bush (41) and incoming Bill Clinton; in fact, it was far more collegial than the turnover between the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations. Just as there were some poor feelings between the Bush 41 people and the departing Reaganites (the Reagan people thought a few of the Bush 41 people were not the sharpest tacks in the box, and a few of the Bush 41 people were piqued because they had been shut out of the Reagan administration) there seemed to be a surprising amount of policy overlap between the Bush 41 and Clinton administrations.
Likewise, the turnover between the Clinton people and the incoming George W. Bush (43) group saw a similar collegial dynamic, and this time it included an astonishing number of senior holdovers, especially at the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency. And - at least in the few months before Sept. 11, 2001 - it was difficult to find areas where the Bush 43 people seemed willing to charter different policy courses than the Clintonites had established (which, for some important issues, were themselves continuations of Bush 41 policies).
This time, however, it could be different: Mr. Obama has separated himself from many of the policies and practices of the past (i.e., Clinton and Bush) administrations - and perhaps we can expect significantly less policy continuity, at least in the national security and foreign policy categories.
Could this mean new President-elect Obama has discovered the distinct advantages and effectiveness of the foreign and national security policies of Ronald Reagan - as opposed to the practices of the last 20 years? Let’s hope so, and let’s also hope he understands the inherent weaknesses of the typical transition “process.”
Daniel Gallington served in senior executive career and political positions and as general counsel for the Senate Intelligence Committee.