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Helping Presidential Transition Teams Make Better Decisions

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
May 3, 2016

hand-853188_640President Obama recently signed into law a bill to improve the process of presidential transitions. This law, the Presidential Transition Improvements Act of 2015, builds on the initiatives that were put into place during the Presidents Bush and Obama transition from 2008 to 2009. Because of the urgency of the war on terror and the 2008 Recession, it was vital to have the incoming Obama administration ready to govern from Day One. To further support future presidential transitions, the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service (“Partnership”) has created the Center for Presidential Transition. The Center’s mission is to prepare a “management roadmap” for incoming administration officials.

Advising Government Officials on Making Better Decisions

As part of the management roadmap, the Partnership—in conjunction with the IBM Center for the Business of Government (“Center”)—released “Enhancing the Government’s Decision-Making: Helping Leaders Make Smart and Timely Decisions.” The report addressed the issue of effective decisionmaking for executive leaders in the White House and federal agencies. Today’s governments are faced with overwhelming information and analysis demands as public officials manage current programs and launch new initiatives. More data is being produced at an ever-increasing rate and complexity, while decisions need to be made faster and with more critical impact on the American public and the rest of the world.

Building an Enterprise Approach to Decisionmaking

The Partnership and the Center held a roundtable in November 2015 to discuss four key areas:

  1. “Establishing decision frameworks and associated governance structures.”
  2. “Harnessing effective governmental decision processes.”
  3. “Adapting decision support systems to better inform decision-making.”
  4. “Developing ideas and tools to enable leaders to make practical decisions in the complex federal environment.”

Based on the roundtable discussion, the participants arrived at three recommendations. First, leaders will establish how decisions will be made for different situations. Leaders will also explain their information needs for the different decision situations. Second, leaders are advised to take an “enterprise” approach to decisionmaking. The Partnership has written several studies on the enterprise approach to governance, which means decisionmakers adopt a holistic perspective in managing his or her federal agency. Third, leaders are encouraged to utilize existing support functions, such as strategic foresight and enterprise risk management. In the next three sections, each recommendation will be explained in detail.

Recommendation One: How Decisions Will Be Made

The first step in recommendation one is to determine a “unit of analysis.” A unit of analysis is defined as how “[l]eaders . . . articulate how they view the world and how it works from their perspective. . . . It could be an agency, a function, a program or an enterprise-wide approach (such as an end result or organizing around a customer).”

Once the unit of analysis is established, the decisionmaker needs to delineate clear links between mission, goals and objectives. The decisionmaker then develops the relationships between organizational units to the mission, goals and objectives. These three steps establish the decision frameworks.

Recommendation Two: The Enterprise Approach to Decisionmaking

The Partnership and the Center noted that in the last decade, ad hoc government-wide collaborative networks have arisen to work on various policy issues. As an example, the report discusses the enterprise approach that was used to implement successfully the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The report encourages using more cross-agency collaborations and partnerships to implement more decisions. To help support these decisions, the President’s Management Council is encouraged to develop an enterprise governance framework while agencies with similar policy areas are advised to create a “central data analytics capacity that connects data silos used by decision-makers.”

Recommendation Three: Using Foresight and Organizational Resilience to Support Better Decisionmaking

Agency leaders are encouraged to strengthen or establish the decision/support functions of foresight, risk management and institutional resilience. Foresight is essential in helping determine and prioritize decisions while risk management helps decisionmakers determine the best decision outcomes. Institutional resilience is necessary for agencies to weather the risks and unknowns in implementing decisions. Equally important is that future agency leaders need to understand fully the legal authorities, precedents and constraints that surround the decisionmaking environment.

Opportunities for Public Administration Scholars in Government Decisionmaking

The Partnership has created a rich research opportunity for public administration scholars in determining what makes effective governmental decisionmaking. I discussed one possible approach in my December 2015 column, in which I described the central message of Lusk and Birks’ Rethinking Public Strategy, which advocates helping agencies develop future-thinking capabilities through scenario planning. There are other areas of decisionmaking research that can advise future governmental leaders to make better decisions and more effectively manage government programs.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park) and the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. He can be reached at http://about.me/bbrantley.

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