Syracuse University Magazine


Q & A: Sean O'Keefe G'78

Advising a Transition of Presidential Proportions

Last January, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) appointed University Professor and Phanstiel Chair Sean O’Keefe G’78 of the Maxwell School to a six-person group of senior advisors tasked with helping to facilitate a smooth White House transition as of January 20, 2017. Joining O’Keefe as advisors to NAPA’s Presidential Transition 2016 panels are Maxwell Advisory Board members Donna Shalala G’70, H’87, and Paul Volcker H’08.

NAPA’s Transition 2016 initiative is an outgrowth of legislation passed in 2010 to expedite protocols crucial to the day-to-day administration of the federal government. The law allows both major party candidates—as of three days after their nominations—access to certain government resources, such as intelligence briefings and FBI background checks, to begin laying the foundation for the transition in management.

Syracuse University Magazine contributing writer Carol Boll spoke about the initiative with O’Keefe, whose lengthy public service includes posts as administrator for NASA and secretary of the Navy.

What is the focus of this transition process?

Effectiveness is what you’re looking for. As the president-elect, you’ve just got so many things on your plate, and there has to be a way to organize them. Before the 2010 legislation, tradition had held that a candidate does not presume success until Election Day; then you had just eight weeks to prepare for assumption of duty. As a result, every administration is incredibly behind the curve because there was no open process to accomplish all the basic steps necessary to prepare to govern. You wouldn’t run any organization that way, much less the sprawling federal government that is likely to spend over $4 trillion in the coming year.

What type of steps are involved?

The most notable, quantifiable challenge is the appointment of senior appointees. Typically, the Senate will act expeditiously on nominations of cabinet officers. But below that, it’ll take months. And it behooves both candidates to have already started the process of thinking about who will be responsible for just the day-in, day-out management issues. If the only person “at home” is the cabinet officer, then you have this vacuum that might remain for months. This transition work expedites that process so you can have a team in place as close to day one as possible.

So the transition teams look at a range of policy issues from the implementation standpoint—how do we start the process of vetting names of people, getting security clearances? What are the management issues that need to be on the agenda? The academy panels are working hard to provide insight on these basic management challenges to both campaign transition teams, and our advisory group is overseeing the effort.

Why is this preparation important? 

Because the time between the election and the assumption of office becomes a period of transitional vulnerability, a time that those who would like to disrupt our way of life find opportune to cause disruption and chaos. This has been proven time and time again to be a serious potential threat—because there’s confusion at the top in terms of how things actually get handled.

But there are also more pedestrian concerns, like structural problems with financial systems—big management problems that the new administration simply was not aware of. The Office of Personnel Management data breach a few years ago is an example. The vulnerability of that system had been identified and pointed to forever.

How will you know if the panels’ work has been successful? 

The greatest measure of effectiveness is the avoidance of incidents you never hear about. If debate in the next administration is exclusively a consequence of policy or program choices—and isn’t something that was just a stupid circumstance or management problem that went ignored—that will be a measure of effectiveness. That is the management framework the academy is trying to prepare the next administration to adopt.