In a presidential transition, there’s no time for mistakes

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JUDY WOODRUFF: With President-elect Trump focused on preparing to take office in January, we return now to the transition process from one president to the next.

I sat down recently with Max Stier, no relation to the Jim Steyer we just heard from. Max Stier is president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service and an expert on presidential transitions.

Max Stier, welcome to the “NewsHour.”

You’ve published this presidential transition guide. And you have also called the Trump transition the biggest takeover in history of an organization.

Seriously?

MAX STIER, Partnership for Public Service: Seriously.

You think about the United States government, you’re talking about $4 trillion in spend, four million people, when you include the military, hundreds of different operating entities and the agencies. You have got 4,000 political appointees; 1,100 of them have to go through Senate confirmation.

No other democracy has that kind of penetration of political appointees in government. It’s a phenomenally complex, important, and critical process that is typically very ill-understood.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what does a president-elect coming in and his or her team, what do they have to get right from the start?

MAX STIER: Right from the start, they have to understand how difficult this process is, and that history is not sufficient guidance for what has to come going forward.

Transition is also the point of maximum vulnerability for our country. In a post-9/11 world, getting this right is essential, not just for the president to be able to achieve their policy objectives, but also to keep us safe.

Job number one is to get your team on the field when the clock starts, and that means January 20 at noon. And that’s not going to be everybody, but our view is, you should have your full White House in place and at least your top 100 Senate confirmed positions that are leading the agencies that are critical to running government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we look at this and we hear some of the names that have been announced so far by Donald Trump. Most of them either haven’t served in government or, if they have, they haven’t served in the executive branch. Why does that matter?

MAX STIER: It matters because running these agencies is a phenomenally difficult task.

And so when you think about running a large organization, and you want people who have done that before, it’s harder in the government than it is in the private sector. Truth is that almost — and I mean this — almost nobody ever comes into the government at the senior levels with having the experience of having done it before. It’s new for everybody. The learning curve is very steep.

One exception, obviously, is someone like Elaine Chao, who’s both at Transportation and at Labor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MAX STIER: But that truly is the exception.

These are incredibly hard jobs to get right. And as much experience as you have is good, but you really need to contextualize that experience to specific issues you face in government. And that requires a lot of learning fast.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you assess so far — I know we’re still early in the process — that the Trump team is doing in terms of getting its arms around what’s coming?

MAX STIER: So, I think that they have a long distance still to travel. They did some very, very good pre-election planning.

Now they’re at game time. They’re obviously naming a punch of people. But naming them isn’t the same thing as getting them into the seats. Clearing conflicts have to happen. They have to go through the Senate confirmation process. They have a background checks that the FBI does. That’s a very difficult process in the ordinary course.

And for a number of these people, especially with high net worth, very complicated holdings, it makes it even harder. They have got a long distance to travel.

I think the key here is not to focus on single individuals, but, one, have they adopted the right goals? And, again, that means getting their leaders in place at the beginning, coming to the table with a management agenda, starting right with Congress and with other critical stakeholders, like the career work force, which they will have to run.

Those are the things that they need to set up now. And then they need to demonstrate this in the next couple of months, that they’re ready to go when they own the place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how are these skills that are required right now different from the skills in the private sector? I mean, Donald Trump clearly comes out of the business world. Many of the people he’s named come out of the business world with these early names.

MAX STIER: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are more to come.

But what’s different in the muscles that are needed?

MAX STIER: It’s a great question.

And I would say one positive is that the government does need smart business principles. And when you get someone who has run an organization in the private sector in a good way, there are great principles that can be transferred over.

They need the good principles, but government cannot be run like a business, so some differences. Starts with Congress. So, when you’re in the private sector, you don’t have to worry about a board of directors that is in conflict with each other, that doesn’t provide you with a budget, that doesn’t have a capital budget.

The working-with-Congress piece is phenomenally different and very complicated. You have a high degree of transparency. You have multiple different stakeholders. And you have scale that you almost never see in the private sector that you have in government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, finally, Max Stier, to the public watching out there who doesn’t know a lot or really isn’t that interested in the inner workings of government, why should they care about this?

MAX STIER: Right.

Well, fundamentally, this is — it all begins in the beginning. If you get the beginning wrong, you’re playing catchup for the rest of your administration.

It starts with national security. That’s the core function of our government. Again, transition is the point of maximum vulnerability for our government. We have a lot of enemies out there. They’re looking to see whether or not that baton handoff is clean, that the new leadership is actually ready.

So, that’s where it begins. But it’s also all the other things we get from our government. In order for that to happen right, we need the new president to be ready on day one, people in place, right goals, a management agenda, and understanding how the whole process works.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Max Stier with the Partnership for Public Service, thank you so much for coming by.

MAX STIER: Thank you very much.

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