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The Hallmark of Our Democracy

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

By Anna Marie Schuh
February 22, 2021

In my federal government career, I experienced many transitions; however, only one of those transitions included personal involvement in the transition process—the transition after the 2000 election. It was not one of the easier transitions because it was delayed until December 13, 2000. Despite this late start, the transition, as most transitions, was smooth, unlike currently.

Even before the 2000 election, federal agency staff had been busy preparing briefing books and presentations for the incoming transition staff. Immediately after Al Gore’s concession speech, transition staff began accessing all the material that the agency staff had prepared. While shorter than normal, the transition was competent and peaceful. The incoming administration had complete access to staff and documents so they could properly prepare for their upcoming responsibilities. The current transition has been quite different.

First, the current transition has had an absence of career federal leadership that typically carries the transition burden. More specifically, between 2016 and 2018 almost eight percent of Senior Executive Service vacancies were vacated and left unfilled. Certain agencies were particularly hard hit. For example, the Bureau of Land Management lost 87% of management staff that were ordered to move from headquarters to western locations. This absence of career leadership has created a significant knowledge vacuum for the incoming administration.

Second, over the Trump presidency, several agencies became politicized. The White House purged employees insufficiently loyal to the president. More recently, there have been multiple examples of questionably qualified political employees burrowing into career positions. During the 2000 transition, agencies were not politicized and loyalty to the president was never an issue. As to burrowing, I was responsible for vetting all political employees who moved into career positions that year. The number was in single digits and all were the most qualified person applying for the position. The difference means the new administration has had to deal with an increased percentage of politically oriented employees, perhaps with their own agendas, embedded in federal agencies.

Third, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the agency responsible for enforcing the merit system, has been greatly weakened, allowing workforce pollicization and diminished merit system enforcement that was not present in 2002. During the four years before the 2000 transition, OPM had one director. During the four years before the current transition, OPM has had four directors. In addition, OPM has experience significant career employee and key leader turnover. In addition, the administration has been trying to merge OPM into the General Services Administration since May 2019. Finally, the previous administration issued executive orders attempting to weaken the merit system, three in May 2018 that undermined federal employee labor management relation rights and in October 2020, one making it easier to fire high level career employee.

Fourth, the incoming administration has had difficulty preparing for the transition because they did not receive complete cooperation and information from all agencies. Even before the election, the Trump administration ignored legal requirements and redacted documents related to the potential 2020 transition. The General Services Administration administrator refused to allow the Biden administration access to transition resources until sixteen days after the media declared Biden the election winner. Political appointees at the Defense Department limited the Biden administration access to critical information about current operations throughout the transition period. Early in the transition, Dr. Anthony Fauci raised concerns about delaying the transition because of COVID-19 public health concerns. Once in office, the new administration found a number of problems with the COVID-19 vaccine distribution operation, e.g., vaccine supply problems, coordination between federal and local governments, funding and staffing.

Finally, the new administration has inherited a debilitated workforce. While employees are hopeful that a new administration will bring a change, many are exhausted from adversarial relationships with outgoing administration officials. In addition, because of the January 6 attack on the capital, many federal employees are concerned about security with 54.15% responding to a Federal News Network survey that safety at the worksite is now a concern.

On the positive side, despite the hurdles, the Biden staff produced a strong transition effort. On November 10, 2020, Biden announced all the members of his agency review teams. These teams brought more than the normal amount of expertise to the process. Before the inauguration, many cabinet members, with extensive federal government experience, were nominated. Immediately after inauguration, Biden was able to issue executive orders and proposed pandemic relief legislation, actions developed during the transition.

It is unfortunate that the transition was filled with obstructions. However, it functioned well because it operated with competent staff who understood the role of government and were committed to the continuation of the American tradition of peaceful transisiton. As President Barack Obama said when his staff prepared for the presidency of Donald Trump, “The peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of our democracy.” It is crucial to our democracy that we have been able to maintain that hallmark even in the most difficult of times.

Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: profschuh.

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