Dear presidential candidates:
A little over a year from now, one of you will take the oath of office. Before Inauguration Day is over, the unexpected could occur — a terrorist threat, a global or domestic crisis — and require your immediate attention.
Will you be ready?
The hard work of governing our nation probably seems a long way off given that you must still secure your party’s nomination and win the general election. But the inauguration will come at warp speed. If you are not preparing now, you could be putting the nation in jeopardy and risk starting your presidency at a disadvantage from which your administration might never recover.
As president, you will be in charge of the largest and most important organization in the world. You will have to make 4,000 political appointments, including more than 1,000 for Senate-confirmed leadership positions; oversee a $3.7 trillion budget; and manage a workforce of 2.1 million civilian employees and more than 2 million active-duty and reserve members of the armed forces. You will have to make decisions on a wide range of critical issues and reach accommodation with an often unruly 535-member board of directors known as Congress.
Despite the magnitude of this task, most candidates do not adequately prepare to govern. Campaigns are contentious and consuming, and carrying out transition planning well in advance of the election has been derisively viewed as presumptuous, with candidates often accused of prematurely “measuring the drapes” before votes are counted.
But the 77 days between the election and the inauguration do not provide enough time to identify and vet your top management team or get up to speed on the complex policy and management issues you will face. Even waiting to begin this work until after your party’s nominating convention this summer will be far too late.
In a scene from the 1972 film “The Candidate,” Robert Redford’s character turns to his campaign manager after winning a hard-fought Senate race and asks, “What do we do now?” You do not want to be in this position. Luck and hope are not a strategy.
As you devote your time and energy to the campaign, you must simultaneously lay the groundwork for a disciplined, well-organized transfer of knowledge and power should the American people elect you as our next president.
You should be ready to announce a transition chairman by the first week of April so that person can set up a transition office by May to take full advantage of a law Congress approved in 2010 that provides pre-election transition resources to the nominees immediately following their party’s conventions.
Your transition staff should compile lists of potential top-level appointees, including people who know how to manage large enterprises, and you should set a goal of having your core team members, including the White House staff and the top 100 agency leaders, in place immediately after Inauguration Day, and another 300 key appointees on the job by the August congressional recess. The transition team should formulate your administration’s policy agenda and develop a management strategy for implementing your priorities.
Presidents champion policies and shape the direction of the nation. Yet they often fail to appreciate the direct link between the success of their administration and the need for a sound plan and capable people to advance their policies and programs.
Every administration experiences unexpected early crises — think about the 2008-2009 financial meltdown and the 2001 terrorist attacks — and serious management failures, such as the poor emergency response to Hurricane Katrina early in George W. Bush’s second term and the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov, the online portal for President Obama’s signature domestic policy initiative. Such missteps only contribute to the public’s distrust of government.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that just 19 percent of Americans trust government “always or most of the time,” and only 20 percent would describe government programs as being well run. For the second consecutive year, Gallup reported that the public identified dissatisfaction with government as the nation’s top problem in 2015.
This, more than anything, needs fixing.
As voters, we long for substance instead of sound bites. There is nothing more substantive for a candidate to do than to fully prepare to run the incredibly complex enterprise that is our federal government and plan ahead to competently meet the needs of the public.
Restoring faith in our government can only be accomplished by making government work better. Your success in this will depend in large part on the steps you take now. There is a lot to do, and Inauguration Day will be here before you know it. It’s time to get to work.
Max Stier is president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, which this month is launching a new Center for Presidential Transition to help candidates prepare to govern. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.