Insights

Making Administration Transitions More Strategic through Futures Scenarios

The Uniquely Challenging Nature of Presidential Transitions

The United States Executive Branch is, by many measures, the largest and most powerful institution in the world. And yet every four years it must prepare to lose 4,000+ of its most senior leaders and their trusted advisors.

No other organization does this.

Presidential Administration Transitions have come to be seen as fraught, disruptive affairs that are at best survived with as few mishaps as possible.

As the election season heats up and the Executive Branch and leading campaigns spin up their Transition preparation efforts, Toffler Associates proposes integrating foresight into transition planning to build agency and national resilience. Foresight goes beyond traditional transition briefings to help leaders and the entire Federal workforce improve strategic understanding and alignment while stimulating critical thinking about key structural questions.

“Humphrey, almost hoarse from shouting, accused Nixon of 'playing president.' 'Why he's even been to Washington…to look at the White House…and measure for drapes,' Humphrey quipped.” ​
Van Nuys, California's Valley News, Oct. 25, 1968, p. 31A​

The Uniquely Challenging Nature of Presidential Transitions

The process of preparing for and seeing through a Transition is uniquely complex and challenging, not least because it has no real precedents or analogues beyond previous Transitions. Even when an incumbent president is reelected, there has historically been significant personnel turnover on either side of the move from first to second term, making the requisite preparations not just a legal necessity but a practical one as well.

It’s worth taking some time to consider the main reasons this process remains so challenging over 200 years since its first instance.

Sheer Size

Governing the bureaucracy that exists to manage all this has no parallel, much less when one introduces the prospect of replacing the top layer of that governance every four years. When we talk about the size of this endeavor, we mean:

  • The Budget. The Fiscal Year 2023 U.S. Federal budget totaled $6.1 trillion – significantly greater than the national budget of any other country, including China and India, despite their far larger populations. This amount – which does not include state, local, tribal, and territorial budgets – reflects the vast size of the American state.
  • The People. The U.S. government comprises approximately 3 million employees, about the population of Arkansas, and several times that in vendors and contractors.
  • The Territory: The Federal government includes about 640 million acres, or 28% of the entire U.S.
  • The Bureaucracy: A large part of the “gravitational mass” of the Federal government comes from the laws, regulations, policies, and other processes built up over two and a half centuries.

Suddenness

The institutional turnover that accompanies Transition is not only huge – it is abrupt for those who opt not to resign ahead of zero hour or before Election Day:

  • Those who Remain on January 20: For the leaders and advisors who stay in their roles all the way through Inauguration Day, the change is effectively instantaneous: before noon on January 20, they hold all the powers of their office, and then, in an instant, they are private citizens.
  • Campaign Staff: On the campaign side, the election outcome is rarely certain ahead of time, giving the incoming Administration just ten weeks – and sometimes not even that – to get used to the idea that they will be taking office.

Both individually and in the aggregate, this exodus has a major impact on the workings of government, with the effect multiplying as more and more appointees head out the door.

As possibility turns to certainty, a huge and disruptive wave of activity unleashes, to include vetting and selecting nominees and appointees, submitting and processing security clearances, and organizing moves to the National Capital Region. So much change in such a short amount of time poses inherent challenges to people, process, and technology.

Political appointees can face job uncertainty during transitions, even within the same party. Some Reagan Administration officials were surprised when President George H.W. Bush did not retain them, despite their assumption of staying on.

Uncertainty

Structural uncertainty around electoral outcomes adds a further degree of difficulty and stress to the entire effort. It’s one thing for a change to be sudden. When it’s sudden and uncertain, the need to plan for multiple outcomes can compound levels of effort and anxiety.

Whether the incumbent Administration is in its first term running for reelection or in an outgoing second term also plays a role. Many second-term staff plan to follow their president out the door irrespective of who comes into office.

Senior Federal positions are time- and effort-intensive roles even under normal conditions. When tasked with managing a Transition of such size, suddenness, and uncertainty, political appointees and their career Federal counterparts and subordinates must do more with less, all while facing some very hard deadlines. This adds up to a uniquely trying experience, but also a uniquely important one.

How Traditional Approaches Fall Short

Traditionally, much of Transition activity takes the form of briefings, whether oral or written. Campaigns do have to select and vet appointees, while the Executive Branch has to conduct succession planning and identify which career officials will serve in acting roles until new politicals arrive.

The bulk of the effort, however, involves collecting, synthesizing, and delivering vast quantities of information. Transition is first and foremost a knowledge management exercise, pulling together the information required to understand, govern, and lead the Federal bureaucracy. While crucial, these methods lack the depth and engagement needed to effectively prepare for the complexities of governing.

The Power of Scenarios in Transition Planning

To address the need for more active engagement, recent Transitions have begun experimenting with other types of knowledge-building activities, the most noteworthy of which is the scenario exercise. Scenarios are a well-established tool useful across a range of purposes. In the context of Transition, however, they can offer an especially powerful means of building individual and institutional resilience.

The first use of scenarios in Transition is credited to the George W. Bush Administration, which ran a pair of exercises with the incoming team of President-elect Obama. This innovation proved prescient when a credible threat emerged days later of a terrorist attack – exactly the kind of scenario the two sides had just practiced. This crisis scenario was so well received, in fact, that it became a legal requirement in subsequent legislation aimed at improving Transitions.

The George W. Bush Administration introduced scenario-based exercises during the Obama transition. The value of this approach was immediately underscored when a real-life terrorist threat, mirroring a practiced scenario, emerged days later. This led to legislation making such crisis scenarios a requirement for smooth transitions.

Learning through Narrative Immersion

Exercises of this sort, ranging from discussion-based tabletops to full-scale dress rehearsals, are highly impactful thanks to their experiential character. Reading about contingency plans simply lacks the visceral immediacy of roleplaying with the very people who have been, or will be, the go-to actors in a real event. For those about to assume new and powerful positions, the suspension of disbelief created by immersive scenarios helps them better inhabit their roles and acquaint themselves with what may be expected of them.

One reason why this method is so effective derives from its use of a holistic narrative structure. Scenarios are stories about an alternate reality. They allow participants to observe and take part in the workings of a system without having had to master the details of each of its parts. Exercises allow them to get a feel for the logic of the processes at play, creating a scaffolding upon which learning of the details can build and improving comprehension and recall of those particulars.

Preparing for Uncertainty

The scenarios used in Transitions thus far have been near-term, tactical affairs focused on what incoming Administration appointees might need to do in a well-defined crisis. While indispensable in their own right, they are but a fraction of a much larger set of valuable use cases. This is where futures scenarios, such as those created through Toffler Alternate Futures®, can serve as force multipliers both prior to and after the election.

“While candidates and parties may be adversarial, presidential transitions are not. A cooperative and supportive tone is critical for the continuity of government operations.”​ ​
Lee Lofthus
Assistant Attorney General for Administration (2006-22)​, Department of Justice

Benefits of Futures Scenarios

Futures scenarios are images of a reality that is advanced in time and meaningfully different from the present. There is no agreed upon interval for something to qualify as a futures scenario, though five years – one full presidential election and Transition cycle with a little bit of room to spare – is typically the minimum that you’ll see.

Developing a Holistic Understanding of the Operating Environment

Instead of focusing on a single event within a narrow, specified window of time, with everything else effectively held constant, futures scenarios provide an entire transformed world to explore. The actual prompts for what participants do within these images of the future can vary greatly, but the most effective ones enable a holistic, ecosystemic understanding of the operating environment.

Mapping the Organizational Landscape

In the case of incoming Administrations, the natural focus would be on how departments and agencies, or even the Executive Branch as a whole, could function to be successful in a given plausible future. What sorts of capabilities, resources, authorities, and partnerships might they need? And which of those show up across multiple different futures, suggesting that they are more likely to stand the test of time?

Identifying Key Drivers of Change

These kinds of thought exercises enable prospective appointees to map out the superstructure of the bureaucracy they stand to inherit, as well as key drivers of change that are shaping its evolution. As they do that, they can start to identify potential opportunities for leadership intervention and decision-making to steer the organization in more favorable directions. This can easily be done well before the election, using publicly available information, and then incorporated into campaign policy platforms and the like.

Fostering Collaboration

Once a successful candidate has been ascertained and the winning campaign turns into the operation of the president-elect, the futures thinking done by the incoming Administration can be brought together with the strategic foresight work that has (hopefully!) been done by the Executive Branch over the preceding term and before. Each side can review the other’s efforts to better comprehend where they are coming from and synthesize an aligned approach for the Administration to come. There will almost certainly be areas of disagreement, of course, but these can be worked through more readily thanks to the shared understanding of envisioned future states.

“It’s understandable that administrations focus on winning re-election, instead of what happens afterward. Planning for a second-term transition – including personnel, process, policy, and management – is necessary for the effective functioning of our government.”​
Chris Lu
Executive Director of the Obama 2008-2009 Presidential Transition, 35th Deputy Secretary of Labor, and current Ambassador to the United Nations for Management and Reform​

Extending the Benefits Throughout the Organization

While the main focus of Transition has understandably been on the incoming and outgoing appointees, as well as the career senior leaders who must step up and fill active roles in their absence, there is a much larger cohort of Government and campaign staff who contribute. The number of potential beneficiaries, though, is greater still.

Increasing Buy-In

The majority of products created for Transition do not contain any particularly sensitive or restricted information. There is little reason to hold back from sharing these content-rich materials across the entire relevant workforce, who stand to benefit from the significant effort that has gone into curating these compendiums of knowledge about their organization. We know of several agencies that have made such widespread access a cornerstone of their Transition approach, which has the added benefit of increasing buy-in from the many people across the organization who get Transition-related tasks added to their already-full plates.

Developing Strategic Foresight in the Workforce

As futures scenario work, hopefully, becomes a more permanent and prominent feature of Transition, the benefits of sharing it far and wide are especially profound. Leaders across industries and sectors report that the number one skill they want to see more of in their workforce is strategic thinking, which has proven to be in short supply. Strategic foresight is a great way to develop precisely that skill, and allowing an agency’s entire workforce (and credentialed contractor base) to engage with its futures work is a low-cost, high-impact way to introduce them to the field.

Ideally, this knowledge management and dissemination effort becomes not just a once-every-four-years exercise, but a persistent organizational function and culture of learning whose benefits accrue continuously over time. Appointees stepping into such an environment will find their Transitions far smoother and their learning curves much less steep.

Interested in Learning More?

Toffler Associates has staff with extensive experience advising Federal leaders on navigating Transition and in the operational mechanics of creating briefing books, issue papers, succession plans, informational videos, and other key Transition Artifacts. You can reach me, Toffler’s Transition Services Lead, at dzakharov@tofflerassociates.com.

All images accessed through WikiMedia Commons. Credits are as follows:

  1. President George W. Bush Meets with Former Presidents and President-Elect Obama, contributed to Wikimedia Commons by George W. Bush Presidential Center
  2. President Richard Nixon on the Telephone at the Oval Office, Series: Nixon White House Photographs, 1/20/1969 – 8/9/1974, Collection: White House Photo Office Collection (Nixon Administration), 1/20/1969 – 8/9/1974
  3. President Regan Walking with Vice President George H.W. Bush Along the Colonnade, Series: Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981 – 1/20/1989, Collection: White House Photographic Collection, 1/20/1981 – 1/20/1989
  4. President elect Obama with former Presidents Bush (41), Carter and Clinton and current President Bush, Official White House photo by Pete Souza
  5. Obama, Bush, and Clinton discuss the 2010 Haiti earthquake Official White House photo by Pete Souza
  6. JANUS-Tête-à-Tête-Sitting President & President-elect, Barack Obama & Donald Trump…” Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

About the Authors

Dmitriy Zakharov

For the last decade, Dmitriy has been directly supporting clients in emergency management, national and homeland security, and other related spaces as a consultant under Woman-Owned Small Businesses. He began his career on the program staff of Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, from which he holds an M.A. in International Security. At Toffler Associates, Dmitriy combines his Federal consulting experience with his passion for strategic foresight and futures thinking in the service of his clients. He is the author of Future-Fluent: How Organizations Use Foresight to Thrive in Turbulent Times (New Degree Press, 2011). Dmitriy is certified as a Project Management Professional by the Project Management Institute and as an Associate in National Flood Insurance by the American Institute for Chartered Property Casualty Underwriters.

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