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18 months before the vote, it’s not too early for candidates to prepare to govern

Under the theory it is never too early, good government groups and a bipartisan crew of senators are urging presidential hopefuls to prepare to govern, not just campaign.

Although it’s almost 18 months before the 2016 presidential election and all the potential candidates have not yet declared, efforts are underway now to make the next transition even better than the last. Drawing on lessons in a Partnership for Public Service report, a senate committee approved transition legislation earlier this month. Then last week, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) launched its “Presidential Transition 2016” initiative that focuses on government management.

“The Bush to Obama transition was one of the best in modern history,” Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and chief executive, wrote on its Web site.

But it was not without worry.

The Partnership’s report on improving presidential transitions, “Ready to Govern,” has a scary anecdote about Inauguration Day 2009.

“As more than one million people poured onto the Na­tional Mall for Barack Obama’s historic January 20, 2009, presidential inauguration, outgoing and incoming national security officials huddled in the White House Situation Room monitoring reports about a possible at­tack on Washington, D.C., by a militant Somali terrorist group with links to al Qaeda…” according to the report.

“The political leadership of the country was gathering at the Capitol and the president’s staff had cleaned out their White House offices, but the new president and his team were not yet in charge.”

Fortunately, the terror alert was a false alarm. Nonetheless, the report says it “mag­nified how important it is for a new administration to immediately take charge in case of a national emergency.”

Some campaigns are better prepared than others.

President Obama began preparing almost a year before his inauguration, according to the report. That included detailed planning on issues, organizing teams of experts to work with agencies after his victory, identifying top jobs to fill quickly and arranging for 100 people to get needed clearances so they could get security briefings immediately following the election. Obama also had a transition budget of $400,000 from private funds. Obama’s 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), did some of the same things, but he devoted just $25,000 to $30,000 for his transition effort, did not plan to send teams of experts to agencies and arranged for only five people to get security clearances, according to the report.

After Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Congress moved to facilitate transition planning by approving legislation that cut the number of appointed positions needing Senate confirmation and another law that provides office space and equipment to presidential and vice-presidential candidates before the general election.

On May 6, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved, with a bipartisan voice vote, a bill that calls for a senior-level White House interagency transition council to be in operation six months before Election Day. A career General Services Administration employee would serve as the federal transition coordinator and each agency would appoint a similar official. Agencies also would be responsible for designating career employees to serve in an “acting” role in senior political positions during the transition.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who sponsored the bill with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), said it “encourages more efficient and effective government by ensuring more orderly transitions between presidential administrations.”

That’s also NAPA’s objective.

It’s working on a three-prong approach. It will provide advice to candidates, regardless of party, on management initiatives that have worked, or not, and where improvements are needed. NAPA and the American Society for Public Administration will research how to overcome federal management problems. NAPA said the transition project, working with the Ersnt & Young consulting firm, will inventory the “presidentially appointed positions most critical to the improvement of agency and program management and provide insights to new political executives on the challenges of managing in government.”

Dan G. Blair, NAPA’s president and chief executive, said the initiative seeks to facilitate a “well-informed, smooth transition effort, where the incoming administration can limit its learning curve in order to identify those programs and projects that are working and how to strengthen them.”

Examples of programs under scrutiny include information technology, acquisitions and human resource management, said Ed DeSeve, co-chairman of NAPA’s initiative. He worked in both the Obama and Clinton administrations. The other chairman is David Chu, who worked in the Reagan and both Bush administrations.

The thrust of NAPA’s effort is to improve program implementation. “We’re not just talking about policies,” DeSeve said.

As Carper said about his legislation, the idea behind all these efforts is to help future administrations “hit the ground running from day one.”