Martha Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, collects and shares information to smooth the transition between presidential administrations.
When a new presidential administration enters the White House, there's going to be a learning curve. One of the keys to making that curve as easy to navigate as possible is ensuring that new White House staff members have all the information they need to start doing their jobs on day one. Martha Kumar, an emeritus professor at Towson University, has been at the White House since the Gerald Ford administration studying its communications operations, relations with the press, and transitions between administrations. Here, she shares with The Public Manager some of the things she learned from observing past transitions and how the work of the White House Transition Project can help members of the incoming administration successfully manage their new roles.
You have been working in the White House since the 1970s and are one of a handful of people who has meaningful institutional knowledge of presidential transitions. Can you describe your job for us?
Historically, transition efforts have focused on providing general resources and funding. Over the years, there has been a growing sense that there needs to be more gathering of information—and gathering and sharing info early. My job has been to work out ways to track an administration's communications—so it can be useful for future administrations.
For instance, I keep a database of presidential interchanges with reporters. It includes press conferences, short question-and-answer sessions, and longer interviews. Press conferences and short Q&As are in the Public Papers of the Presidents, but only a portion of interviews are available there.
By tracking to a database, I know what interview took place, when it took place, in what room it took place, how long the interview lasted, and what news organization conducted it. I classify interchanges by type of media: television, print, radio, online. I also categorize them on whether they're national, local, or for a specialty audience. These categorizations are important in giving a sense of the variations between administrations. Currently, my database goes from Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama.
What kinds of information are important to helping the new administration understand the rules of engagement in dealing with the press and managing overall communication?
The relationship between the White House and the press is based on tacit understanding, and that relationship is important to each of them. The president needs the press because that's his or her only way of getting to the public. The communications of an administration are very different from those of a campaign. In a campaign, you're basically giving a single message: Win the election. Once you're elected, you're doing many different things.
Just look at a president's daily schedule. The country could be in the middle of a crisis, but the president still has to attend separate events—from something related to small business to a science initiative. There will be people who want to write about small business for their audience; meanwhile, the science event will attract a whole different press corps. So, there are going to be a lot of different offices in the White House and in the government working on different initiatives, events, and communications.
Even after 9/11, George W. Bush still had other work to do. And then, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan were topmost on his mind. And they remained topmost on his mind during the transition. Bush told his chief of staff, Josh Bolten, in early December 2007 that with two wars, he wanted to ensure a smooth transition. So for the transition, his team had direction and a clear set of instructions.
Meanwhile, National Security Advisor Steve Hadley was working on memoranda that detailed countries and situations that were going to be critical for a new president to know about. Consider an issue like nuclear proliferation. The memo would outline what the situation was like when Bush came into office, events and changes that occurred during the administration, and details about the current state. Bush would review the memos and add his own views. This made a huge difference to the quality of transition from Bush to Obama.
The transition from Bush to Obama, which built on the work of previous administrations, worked so well that Obama wanted to set it as a framework for future transitions. The 2010 pre-election transition legislation memorializes the Bush-Obama transition process. It said that the president may create a transition coordinating council as well as an agency transition director's council composed of career executives. The 2015 legislation, which was signed on March 28, 2016, specifies that a transition coordinating council shall be created six months before the election. On May 6, 2016, President Obama issued an executive order to create a council.
Can you tell us what the transition process looks like at the agency level?
Fortunately, agencies started working early on this transition. I've been impressed at the degree to which they want to know what sort of information the people coming into office will want and what form they want it in.
After the last transition, agencies asked several key questions: What information did the new administration actually use? Who used the information? They learned that the incoming administration didn't use big briefing books; instead, they wanted information in shorter spurts. In preparing information for this transition, agencies have been trying to hit the points that people want to know about in the formats that they're interested in. Some memos, some books, some digital. They can get as much or as little as they want.
Let's talk about the appointment process. Can you tell us what that looks like behind the scenes?
Well, there are thousands of people that a president can appoint. When the president enters office, the focus is on key positions. These are appointments that require Senate confirmation: department secretaries and assistant secretaries, on down through levels of deputies. The candidate or the president-elect must fill out a form that is akin to a personal background check.
The new administration doesn't want a nomination to blow up, so there a lot of questions. It may ask something like, Have you illegally employed somebody and not paid the proper taxes? There also are financial disclosures, which can be complicated if the appointee is very wealthy.
The Obama administration pulled together 63 questions that were likely to be asked on the Hill. The Senate, however, has never gotten together to have one form that includes all of its questions, so the administration needs to anticipate those.
Some nominees hire lawyers to help them through the process. It can get complicated as nominees try to navigate questions about conflicts of interest, for example. They may need to talk to people at the Office of Government Ethics, a Senate committee chair, or someone at the White House. There also is an FBI background check for people at the top level. In addition to that, if it's a national security position, there is a national security check handled by the ODNI (Office of the Director of National Intelligence).
Then, there are confirmation hearings. For cabinet members, it goes pretty quickly unless there's a problem. As you go down the line, people in office, senators, and so on can start to negotiate over nominees who aren't going to get a lot of publicity. For instance, to let the president's nominee through, they want to get a government warehouse in their state.
Do you have any recommendations on how to make the upcoming appointee process more efficient?
Start early and make sure you're not going to be running into headwinds. The incoming administration needs to consider how much an appointment may cost them. Is the nomination worth it, or do they want to put their attention on legislation?
I think it's also important to remind leaders and committee chairs that offices must be filled. Do they want the government staffed? Yes, because they need the government to carry out the functions that the American people are paying for. Empty chairs are not going to do it. Although career people are in place, they are not the same as the political appointees who form the leadership structure and carry out the president's goals. It can be a vulnerable situation for everyone.
The new administration has to think through how many nominees they really want and how quickly. So, say the goal is 400 nominees confirmed by the August recess. You have to consider the infrastructure required to do that. For example, you have to ask the FBI, "How many agents is it going to take to get 400 people confirmed?" Then you ask the same question at the Office of Government Ethics and so on.
Can you tell us how issues like organizational change, talent management, recruitment, and engagement play out when an administration is coming in?
The career people in agencies have a stake in making sure the new people have good information on who is there and what their backgrounds are. Career people also have a stake in having new folks know what programs they're working on, the state of those programs, and any issues programs are facing. If there are problems, what kind of problems are they? With budgeting, what issues do they have to deal with? Clearly, they are very interested in engaging with a new team. And they're nervous in some ways.
One thing that's difficult for current leaders is that their first duty is to carry out the sitting administration's agenda. If that's setting or checking rules and regulations, for example, that‘s what they've got to focus on, number one. But then they also have a stake in preparing well for the new team because that's how you have continuity. By working on the transition, though, they're reminding everyone who's leaving that they're on the way out. You don't want to do that on an active agenda.
So, in the end, the political leadership is going focus on accomplishing that agenda, and the career people are going to carry out the transition. You can see that play out with the Transition Directors Council. Many people in agencies have been there for more than one transition, so they're knowledgeable about how to get the attention of new leaders.
How do folks coming in use the resources you prepare? Is it part of their onboarding program?
We're interested in people who come into offices in the White House. Take, for example, an office like staff secretary, nobody knows much about what he or she does when coming in. But it's a pivotal role because that person sees all the paper in an administration; nothing goes to the president without going through the staff secretary. So, we've interviewed staff secretaries from the Nixon administration through the current administration. Lisa Brown, who was staff secretary in the beginning of the Obama administration, said that piece taught her a lot about her job.
That's our goal—to teach people about the functions of the office, responsibilities of the directors, and how it has changed or remained the same over time. For some offices, like staff secretary, there may be different ways of doing specific tasks, but the role of the office remains essentially the same.
However, something like the Office of Public Liaison, which historically dealt with constituency groups, has evolved over the years. The Office of Public Liaison for the Obama administration deals with intergovernmental affairs, urban affairs, and some satellite groups like the Women and Girls Council, as well as Olympic and Paralympic sports. Today, that office is much larger than in earlier administrations.
Many offices and positions go through some sort of transition, and it's important to document those changes. The Office of Communications, which was created by Richard Nixon, picked up a bad odor because several people who worked in it went to jail. Not surprisingly, the Ford administration didn't want to use that office, but over the years, it has become an important function because it prepares the strategy and conducts long-term communications for the administration. Even though it went through a bad period, it's become a permanent office.
In addition to detailing specific roles and tasks, we also prepare organization charts for each administration. These charts can be a quick way to illustrate how an office structure evolves and changes. Thumbnail sketches of all of the offices in the White House and the Executive Office of the President can show people right off the difference between them.
What are some of the good lessons learned throughout the transitions, and what is your advice overall for achieving the best outcome during a transition?
Planning early is certainly key, but what kind of planning you're doing is really critical. I think the most important thing an incoming president can do is have a clear policy agenda ready to roll out upon entering the White House.
That was one of the things that made it easier for Reagan; he knew what he wanted to do. For years, he had talked about building up the military, cutting government spending, and decreasing government programs. Once he came in, it wasn't hard to figure out what to do. It was the same with George W. Bush. He had several key issues he talked about during his campaign: education reform, faith-based offices, military buildup, tax reform, and tax cuts. They were his government agenda.
Having your priorities laid out and being ready to carry them through is going to be important for your agency review teams. As appointees move into departments and agencies look for information, they need to have a sense of what the president wants and what is expected of them.
It's also essential to appoint people early so they can come and learn from the people they're replacing. In 2008, the incoming Obama administration did that with the National Security Council. General James Jones was appointed around Thanksgiving, he appointed the people who were going to be the head of the directorates, and they came in and worked with the outgoing people. So not only did the new people have documentation about the office, they were able to talk to the people who came before them. That combination of paper and people is very important for transition success.
In the end, a president is going to be judged by her or his legacy. Part of that legacy is how they leave the administration, so it's important to get it right.