MAX STIER remembers learning in school that one of the practices that make the United States a great country is the quadrennial peaceful transfer of power. “What no one explained,” Mr. Stier noted during a recent visit to The Post, “is that the transfer is peaceful but ugly.”
Mr. Stier and the nonprofit organization that he leads, Partnership for Public Service, are trying to make the transition process a bit less ugly. Given the international challenges that will face the next president from Inauguration Day, this is a matter of national security. It’s also a matter of common sense. A president inherits an immense, complex organization with 4.1 million workers. He or she better have prepared for the management challenge ahead of time.
When should the planning begin? Congress in 2010 helpfully decided to make transition funding available after the nominating conventions, rather than on Election Day. But even that is too late, Mr. Stier said. “They should be thinking about it now.”
That’s asking a lot, of course, given that the two dozen or so men and women running or mulling the possibility might seem a tad presumptuous if they formed transition teams now. Indeed, a combination of superstition and a desire not to look presumptuous — not to be caught “measuring the drapes” in the Oval Office — has tended to keep candidates from undertaking or revealing even minimal planning. Mr. Stier hopes to turn the politics upside down: “Candidates should be judged based on whether they are preparing to govern,” he said.
To encourage such a shift, the partnership has enlisted a group of advisers with all-star experience, including Joshua B. Bolten, who as President George W. Bush’s last chief of staff was committed to a smooth transition to the Obama presidency, and Thomas F. “Mack” McClarty III, chief of staff in President Bill Clinton’s White House. The partnership will prepare a transition guide, offer it to every candidate and encourage candidates to set up separate organizations to prepare nominations for the most important positions and take other steps to be ready.
The goal should be to have Congress confirm the 500 most important nominees before it goes on recess in August 2017. That will require cooperation from Senate committees, of course, but it has to start with early nominations. Altogether, 4,000 political positions turn over with each election — and many of the best career employees are at risk, too, Mr. Stier said. “A lot of them don’t want to go through the exercise of breaking in a new team, and the stupid things a new political team will do,” he noted. A focus of the transition guide will be on the importance of working with, not around or against, career staff.
“It’s hard to overestimate how important the beginning is,” Mr. Stier said, “and it’s never been done right.”