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WHY TRANSITIONS MATTER

Chris Hand

November 16, 2020


When the Mayor’s Office staff gathered in late May 2015, it was for a meeting that nobody in the room had wanted to attend. Our boss – City of Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown – had just been narrowly defeated for re-election. As we met at City Hall, the mood was somber. In a little more than a month, the administration in which we served would be over. Many of the people in the room would be looking for work.


The meeting subject was the transition to a new mayoral team. While staff members were concerned about what the end of the administration would mean for them, the attendees unhesitatingly accepted our post-meeting mission. Just as Mayor John Peyton and his team had done four years earlier, we would ensure the City of Jacksonville experienced a seamless transfer of power to Mayor-elect Lenny Curry. Between late May and July 1, we provided quick access to office space, met repeatedly with members of the transition team to discuss pending policy and operational issues, established a transition personnel process, and participated in budget discussions.


None of this is recounted to earn any extra credit. We were doing our jobs. Facilitating the peaceful transition of power from one executive administration to the next is part of the privilege of public service and responsibility of leadership. Now that the 2020 election results are clear that Joe Biden will be the next President, the outgoing presidential team has an obligation to give the new administration an opportunity to hit the ground running when it takes office in 65 days. This cooperation is vital to support three crucial federal government functions.


1. National Security. While President-elect Biden and many members of his team have extensive national security experience, the world has changed considerably since he last served in office four years ago. The President-elect, Vice President-elect, and incoming officials cannot be fully prepared to address potential security threats and foreign challenges without the assistance of their predecessors. As former National Security Advisor Susan Rice wrote in a recent op-ed, any “refusal to execute a responsible transition puts our national security at risk. Without access to critical threat information, no incoming team can counter what it can’t see coming.”[1]


2. Public Health. The first two weeks of November brought both hopeful and terrifying COVID-19 news. The announcements of the potential Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines herald the possibility of light at the end of the tunnel. But early November also saw a record number of new infections, with nearly 2 million new cases since the start of the month. When the Biden Administration takes office in 65 days, it will have to act quickly, efficiently, and comprehensively to stem the COVID tide, including vaccine distribution. That work will be more effective if the incoming Biden transition team is granted access to key federal agencies and administrators now rather than later.


3. Continuity of Operations. The federal government has numerous executive departments and independent agencies which are responsible for everything from national defense to Social Security to mail delivery to national parks. Those departments or agencies employ 2.1 million civilian employees and 1.3 million active duty military personnel. Preparing to manage federal government operations is such a massive task that Congress passed the Presidential Transition Act to govern the process.[2] But key provisions – like the General Services Administration (GSA) providing office space and support to the incoming administration – have not yet been activated.


Election losses are painful, but they are part of democracy. If the unsuccessful candidate is a current officeholder, he or she still has the responsibility to “discharge the duties of the office” until public service is completed.[3] Those duties include ensuring that a successor has every possible opportunity to fulfill his or her own oath of office.


***

Chris Hand has served at every level of government, including as a U.S. Senate press secretary and Chief of Staff at the consolidated City of Jacksonville. Hand Law (www.hand.law) is a Florida strategic government law firm dedicated to helping clients navigate city, county, regional, state, and federal governments.



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