Challenges and Lessons Learned in Transitioning the Federal Government

Testimony Before the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia

SOURCE: Center for American Progress

CEO and President John Podesta testifies before the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia.
Read the testimony (CAP Action).

I want to begin by emphasizing how seriously President Obama and Vice President [Joe] Biden took the transition process. Despite an impending set of challenges that I believe were unprecedented in modern times, independent observers have noted that the 2008 transition was one of the most successful in history. President Obama and Vice President Biden’s leadership, and the hard work done by their team, are key reasons for its success. The professionalism and cooperation of the outgoing administration, along with the dedicated work of the staff at the General Services Administration, also deserve great credit for making the 2008 transition exemplary.

The president understood that the needs of the country demanded that we begin planning in earnest prior to the general election on November 4. National security risks have become heightened during periods of transition – in addition to September 11, both the U.K. and Spain suffered terrorist attacks near recent transfers of power – and this is one critical reason why transitions should proceed with full cooperation from all parties and with adequate institutional support.

In this regard, the Bush administration’s national security team deserves to be commended for their extensive assistance in assuring the transition occurred as seamlessly as possible. They  worked closely with us throughout the process to ensure that our team was in place, informed, and poised both to prevent potential acts of terrorism and handle an emergency situation if one were to arise. As a result of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, we were also able to accelerate the process of security clearances by submitting names and the requisite background information to the Department of Justice and FBI before the election. This enabled our key staff to receive approximately 150 security clearances and to dispatch 500 people into the agencies within a week of the inauguration.

In addition to the heightened risk of terrorist activity, as 2008 wore on it became increasingly clear that the Obama administration would inherit a host of extremely severe economic challenges. As housing prices plummeted, credit markets froze, and financial markets fell deeper into crisis, avoidance of outright economic collapse hinged on the administration’s ability to execute a range of policy initiatives immediately upon taking office. Over 700,000 jobs were lost in President Bush’s last month in the White House. Two of the big three auto companies were heading steadily towards bankruptcy. The economy was in the midst of contracting more than 5 percent for two subsequent quarters for the first time since the Great Depression. It was not only responsible, but imperative that the Obama campaign prepare as fully as was feasible for the possibility of governing in a time of crisis.

The ability of the incoming Obama administration to prepare to address these national security, economic, and other critical national issues was greatly assisted by President Bush’s executive order facilitating the transition (EO 13476, signed October 9, 2008), signed a month before the November election. President Bush’s approach built on the transition executive order issued by President Clinton in 2000, (EO 13176, signed November 30, 2000), widening the Presidential Transition Coordinating Council to include key White House policy advisors and encouraging their active involvement. 

The impressive cooperation between the incoming and outgoing administrations and the good work of the GSA is a success story that can hopefully be repeated during future presidential transitions. It was especially crucial in minimizing security vulnerabilities that were of concern due to changes in leadership. And although the country still faces economic challenges, the preparation for managing the many moving pieces of the financial and economic crisis was instrumental in returning to growth, stemming job losses, and improving credit conditions as quickly as possible in 2009.

CEO and President John Podesta testifies before the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia.
Read the testimony (CAP Action).