The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s time to talk about the presidential transition process

(Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

With the presidential election just a few months away, federal agencies are starting to prepare briefing materials for the next administration, political appointees are leaving or getting ready to head out the door, and employees are wondering how their work life will change come January.

For many civil servants, the next six months or so will be filled with uncertainty as they wait to learn the identity of their future supervisors, the status of their portfolios and the priorities of the incoming leaders. All of this has the potential to create anxiety for some employees and diminish workplace engagement, but it does not have to be this way.

Based on a number of interviews with government leaders and an examination of "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" data, my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, and Deloitte, recently published an issue brief titled "Moving the Needle on Employee Engagement During the Presidential Transition.”

The leaders we interviewed had a straightforward suggestion: Communicate with employees clearly and regularly, and acknowledge that a transition is underway and change is coming. This communication should come from the current political appointees, the career senior executives and managers down the line.

Leaders should provide employees with details about the agency’s transition plans even now, when the process is in its early stages. If there are few new updates week to week, at least let employees know that decisions are still in the works. Keeping employees in the loop as much as possible can go a long way toward reducing anxiety, preventing rumors from spreading and keeping people focused on their work.

In order for any communications to take root, the message should be delivered consistently and at all levels.

The "Best Places to Work" data suggest that senior leaders typically communicate well, while managers and front-line supervisors struggle. Perhaps, like the old game of telephone, the message gets muddled as it’s passed across an agency. Perhaps career leaders remain tight-lipped because they are uncertain what information they're able to share. Or perhaps the communication is delivered — but delivered poorly.

Whatever the cause, senior leaders can work with their managers to set expectations and provide a list of key issues that can serve as a starting point for discussion with their teams. They also should regularly follow up to ensure that new information is disseminated and that managers and supervisors are having the necessary conversations.

It’s also important for leaders to use multiple communication channels to reach the workforce. Team or small-group meetings can be effective in establishing a personal connection with employees and allowing for better questions and discussions. In addition to video teleconferencing for those in field offices, agencies can use email and their regular newsletters to communicate updates.

While it is important for leaders to share information about the transition, employees also should have the opportunity to participate in the transition process.

The experts we interviewed said agency leaders should consider putting a range of employees —including those at the junior level — on their internal transition teams, so that all points of view are represented. Some might even consider allowing junior employees to attend meetings with incoming appointees next year. Directly involving lower-level workers in the process can foster buy-in and reassure employees that their opinions are valued.

There is no doubt that the election and the transition can bring great uncertainty to the country and to the federal government, but it’s also an opportunity to engage employees if you communicate clearly and frequently.

Have any thoughts on the agency transition process? Please comment below or email me at

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

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