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Presidential Transitions: A Q&A with David Eagles

With the pressing challenges our country faces, a successful transition is as important as ever. David Eagles, a graduate of our 2016 Presidential Leadership Scholars class, and the director of the Center for Presidential Transition, talked with the Bush Center recently about the work ahead.

Article by Brittney Bain January 19, 2017 //   5 minute read

We’re reminded today that a smooth transition of power is no small feat. It’s often organized chaos behind-the-scenes, and yet a diplomatic handover of the federal government is a symbol of our American democracy.

In fact, an efficient presidential transition is one familiar to many of us at the Bush Center. President Obama even recently cited the transition efforts by the then-outgoing Bush administration as a model for his staff to follow.

With the pressing challenges our country faces, a successful transition is as important as ever. David Eagles, a graduate of our 2016 Presidential Leadership Scholars class, and the director of the Center for Presidential Transition, recognizes the challenges and opportunities that exist. He talked with the Bush Center recently to explain his efforts and the important work ahead.

As a Presidential Leadership Scholar, your Personal Leadership Project was to launch the Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service. Tell us more about the idea behind that, and what your goal was in launching such a venture.

The peaceful transition of power and knowledge from one president to another is a hallmark of American democracy.

These presidential transitions have always been big, complicated, and critical. Given that periods of transition can create gaps in staffing and security is heightened, they can potentially be dangerous. But when managed strategically, this time can represent one of the best opportunities to make government more effective. 

Our aim was to become the single clearinghouse of resources and experts for planning and executing successful transitions. We wanted to create a system to learn and improve upon for future cycles. I think we have done that.

How have you been able to quickly expand to meet the timely needs of the next administration?

First, we wanted to gather all relevant information and documents from prior transitions. We did that so we could understand and learn from the best practices as well as the mistakes. 

Second, we assembled an amazing advisory board. The list includes Clay Johnson, Gov. Michael Leavitt, and Josh Bolten from the Bush Administration. And we put together a staff, made up of people who had led or been a part of these efforts before. 

And third, we started engaging with the campaigns very early. Our first full convening was with the five presidential candidates’ senior staff back in April of last year, when we talked about these issues. Since then, we have worked closely with the Clinton and Trump transition teams. Now, we are in execution mode supporting the Trump effort.

 In your experience, what challenges are there in transitioning from one administration to the next?

This is the biggest takeover on the planet. When you think about the federal government, you are talking about spending $4 trillion, employing four million people, and inheriting hundreds of different operating entities and agencies.

You also have to make over 4,000 political appointments, of which 1,100 of those people have to go through Senate confirmation.  No other democracy has that kind of penetration of political appointees in government. 

This is a phenomenally complex, important, and critical process that is typically very ill-understood. And it cannot happen in the few months in between the election and inauguration.  There is such an amazing opportunity to do so much better; no team has really done this well.

What are the keys to a successful transition?

First, just start early, well before the election and ideally in the spring of the election year. The issue of being presumptuous needs to be off-the-table. 

Second, set clear goals and priorities for the transition. Incoming teams can expect a deluge of advice and information. Being focused from the beginning will help the team manage through that deluge.

Third, organize effectively around the key components to making a transition. They include presidential appointments and policy implementation. 

Fourth, Thomas Edison said “vision without execution is hallucination.” Developing a plan to get your agenda done is critical. This requires effective engagement with the career workforce that will ultimately execute your vision. 

What lessons in leadership from your time as a Scholar have you been able to apply to your work now?

The Presidential Leadership Scholar program was enormously beneficial for me personally and professionally.  To be surrounded by an excellent group of faculty and scholars that support the mission of public service is motivating and impactful.  I certainly better understand the needs of our complex web of stakeholders and have improved my ability to communicate our efforts.

Most importantly, I have new lifelong friends and we will continue to find ways to make a significant impact and answer the call to service.