Looking back at the toughest presidential transition in history
The 2020-2021 presidential transition was the toughest in modern history. A new report by the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition® and Boston Consulting Group examines the planning and execution of this difficult transfer of power and provides a series of recommendations to improve the process in the future.
A hectic transition
In 2020, the United States faced a series of crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic and a faltering economy.
The situation became more complex when President Trump refused to accept the results of the 2020 election. This refusal resulted in a delay in ascertainment—the General Services Administration’s official recognition of an apparent election winner that enables the post-election transition to begin—and reduced information-sharing from certain federal agencies with the incoming team. The violent insurrection on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol added to these challenges.
Successful transition strategies
Anticipating a rocky transition, the Biden-Harris transition team employed several strategies before, during and after the election to ensure a smooth transfer of power.
- Most importantly, the team started planning early—about eight months prior to the election—and established a clear relationship with campaign staffers to align strategy and quickly resolve any differences or disagreements.
- The team included a well-organized and well-staffed personnel operation that screened resumes and vetted applicants who would be counted on to lead agencies across the federal government at the start of the new administration.
- The Trump transition team met key deadlines prior to the election as required by the Presidential Transition Act—even as the president himself refused to acknowledge the election results.
The presidential transition process has generally improved in recent years—due in large part to legislative reforms to federal transition law and an increased understanding of how certain best practices contribute to better transitions. Nevertheless, the events of 2020 underscore the need for more improvements.
Recommendations for transition teams
- Future transition teams should prioritize contingency planning to handle unconventional challenges—like the need for extended remote work.
- Similarly, to reduce disruptions during the transition process, transition teams should seek continuity in personnel and policy planning.
Recommendations for Congress
- Amend the Presidential Transition Act to ensure that a delay in ascertainment does not interrupt the transition process.
- Develop new guidelines for managing transitions in a virtual environment, as the shift to remote work increased some administrative and legal burdens for qualified individuals to join the transition team.
- Focus on promoting holistic reforms to streamline a host of transition issues—from complex disclosure requirements and personal vetting protocols to delays in the Senate confirmation process. Congress should improve the current process to enable a well-functioning and fully staffed administration.
The transfer of power is a core tenet of our democracy, and it is incumbent upon several key stakeholders—including political leaders of all parties, business representatives, civil society organizations and the media—to contribute to the health of our system by supporting peaceful presidential transitions. Our new lessons learned report provides a series of recommendations to help make that possible.
To learn more, read “The 2020-21 Presidential Transition: Lessons Learned and Recommendations” and watch the report release event.