Principles for transparency and accountability in the U.S. presidential transition

George W. Bush and Barack Obama sit in chairs in the Oval Office.
(Photo credit: White House Photographer Eric Draper/Wikimedia Commons)

Making the transition between administrations more open, transparent and accountable is a critical goal that transcends partisan politics. All Americans have a stake in ensuring a peaceful, efficient and effective transition process between administrations, regardless of party or politics. Given the demonstrated risks from poor management, the need to improve the presidential transition has been clear. In 2016, due to the foresight of Congress, an executive order by President Barack Obama on the facilitation of the presidential transition, and the ongoing support of his administration, the process officially began in July, not the day after Election Day.

As directed by the executive order, there’s now a White House Transition Coordinating Council made up of senior government officials that “provides guidance to executive departments and agencies and the federal transition coordinator regarding preparations for the presidential transition, including succession planning and preparation of briefing materials,” facilitates “communication and information sharing between the transition representatives of eligible candidates and senior employees in agencies and the Executive Office of the President,” and prepares and hosts “interagency emergency preparedness and response exercises.” An Agency Transition Directors Council will now “implement the guidance provided by the White House Transition Coordinating Council and to coordinate transition activities across agencies.” Transition teams are using office space in D.C. provided by the General Services Administration and using public funding. The Partnership for Public Service is providing useful resources for the presidential transition.

While this institutionalization of the process is good news, the public is currently relying upon media reports for information regarding transition staff, potential cabinet members, the and the state of planning or preparation by the presidential campaigns. When such reporting focuses on outlining the process, the novelty of the proximity of transition teams and the timing of intelligence briefings, the public is not being adequately informed about the substance of the work. The campaigns are not adopting adequate proactive disclosures of information to close that knowledge gap, nor are they laying out the ethical principles that guide their transition teams and work.

Given reports of “an inside look on the work underway on planning for the transition” being sold to donors without disclosure, the demonstrated need for more open government in the transition is clearer than ever. If there is a gap between what the leaders of transitions tell donors in private and what the campaigns say in public, voters are not being adequately informed about the choice before them.

That should change prior to the election and following it. It’s critical that transition teams not only adopt effective management of the process but embrace transparency and accountability throughout the process. The campaigns and transitions must work towards building public trust in the federal government’s capacity to make this transition with integrity, outside of partisan politics.

Here are the five principles that the Sunlight Foundation calls on the presidential campaigns to embrace before and after the election:

  1. TRANSPARENCY: Presidential candidates should proactively outline to the public the steps they are taking in the transition, from management and staffing appointments to the timelines for vetting political appointees, particularly for agencies related to foreign policy, national security and public safety.
  2. ENGAGEMENT: Transition teams should establish accessible websites and social media feeds that provide ongoing updates regarding the status of their work, modeling and embracing the same presumption of openness in sharing that we expect the administration of the nominees to adhere to in office. After the election, the transition should borrow from the best practices established by the Bush and Obama administrations in late 2008, including the use of to inform the public and provide an opportunity to comment on a proposed policy agenda.
  3. POSTERITY: While aspects of government operations must necessarily be protected, all transition records should be preserved for the historical record using guidance from the U.S. National Archives, regardless of format, including memoranda, messaging, correspondence, statements, social media, budgeting, spending and meeting minutes.
  4. DISCLOSURE: Transition teams should embrace timely disclosure of contributions as structured data online. Senior staff should sign an ethics pledge and financial disclosure form and post them online.
  5. ACCOUNTABILITY: The campaigns should provide a monthly press availability of the chair of the transition to update the public on the status of their work, including the each of the previous four points.