Marine One takes off from the White House lawn in December.

Dec 15 2020

Q&A: With Presidential Transition, a New Agenda for Federal Technology

Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former DOD civil servant, who was on the team that assisted in the Obama transition, explains how the process works from the inside.

Ever since George Washington handed over the keys to the government to John Adams in 1797, new presidents have installed their own new workforces in relatively short periods of time. The average transition period between administrations averages about 75 days, but some are shorter: former President George W. Bush’s transition did not officially begin until December 2000, after the historic court battle over that contested election; President-elect Joe Biden’s was slowed for about three weeks until the General Services Administration granted his team access to government resources in late November.

Incoming transition teams receive assistance from career civil service employees who keep their jobs no matter who the president is. In 2008, Loren DeJonge Schulman was one of them, on the Defense Department team helping with the transition between Bush and former President Barack Obama. Now vice president for research and evaluation at the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, home to the Center for Presidential Transition, Schulman is among the experts tracking the Biden transition, which is happening amid an unprecedented combination of political and societal chaos. In this discussion with FedTech, she explains what to expect.

FEDTECH: What technology-related policies, practices and employees will stay on board?

Schulman: The career civil service employees across all the agencies, and particularly across those that are dedicated to technology, will remain in place, regardless of who's president. That is a critical element of our peaceful transition of power. All the experts that the current Trump administration relies on, whether at the General Services Administration or the Department of Defense or Homeland Security, they'll be there, no matter what new things the new administration wants to do. 

All that being said, I can't make definitive predictions of exactly what will be kept in and what will be tossed out. I'm pretty confident that the Trump administration will be ready to hand off whatever they find to be their own priorities, in technology or any other space. The Biden team will be well prepared to seek out and understand where there's been positive progress on any number of fronts, particularly given what they've said many times is their commitment to government innovation, government operational improvements and effectiveness. 

Technology in government is actually an area where we've seen a lot of good continuity across administrations, not only in this one, but in prior ones. The focus on modernizing tech is likely to continue under the Biden administration. I’d expect that some of the major tech initiatives that the Trump administration put in place will also keep going, whether it be development of new technologies and emerging tech like artificial intelligence or quantum computing, and also the focus on encouraging agencies to use technologies like this. I think they've actually had some really great effect with a lot of innovation during this COVID timeline.

The other thing I'd say is that a lot of initiatives that are ongoing right now, like the Centers of Excellence, have a lot of bipartisan support in Congress. The IT Modernization Center of Excellence was even codified into law in December 2020. There's a lot of institutional, foundational agreement that tech modernization should continue. Other things that received a lot of attention, like the Technology Modernization Fund, were actually proposed under the Obama administration and implemented during the Trump administration, so — just a prediction — they’re likely to continue under a Biden administration.

It’s always an instinct that new administrations have to work against, to not discard the great work of the guy that went before them. I think the Biden administration, given their interest, is really well poised to pick up on the good initiatives from the Trump team as well.

FEDTECH: The President’s Management Agenda, however, is something that each new president is required to create, right?

Schulman: By law, they have to update it, so you will see a new President’s Management Agenda come out from a Biden administration next year. That being said, technology has been a key priority in management agendas under George W. Bush, under President Obama and under President Trump. If you look at the PMA goals from Obama to Trump, you can actually see some — at least on paper — efforts to build on the progress of the past administration, whether in IT modernization or customer service delivery and customer experience, and also in data. The Trump administration has made a lot of progress on the Federal Data Strategy.

Improvements in government process and institutions and the infrastructure should be a source of bipartisan continuity, as well as a desire to understand what the successes were, but to try to build on those. There's always space for doing more.

redhaired woman in sleeveless green top, smiling
"Improvements in government process and institutions and the infrastructure should be a source of bipartisan continuity."

Loren DeJonge Schulman Vice President, Research and Evaluation, Partnership for Public Service

FEDTECH: GSA is required to begin planning for the transition months in advance of the election. What sort of material would the agency have been pulling together?

Schulman: When I was a career civil servant in the Department of Defense in 2008, I was one of the senior staff helping lead exactly that effort within DOD. So agencies have been for months pulling together resources, information and background materials that would be useful for the landing teams as they come in from the new administration during the transition process. These help those landing teams understand what activities are going on at the agency, the crises that a new administration might face, or what other decisions they might have to deal with early.

There's also some early prep around how to prepare new incoming senior officials — if you have a new CIO coming in, what do they need to know on day one of their job? What are the urgent things they need to be aware of and who is in their organization? This is a really important effort because the U.S. government apparatus is so complex, and there's such a brief period that we have for the new administration to understand the job.

FEDTECH: But this year, the new administration knows exactly what crisis it’s facing first.

Schulman: You're exactly right. COVID-19 is obviously the elephant in the room of the transition process. But there are so many other aspects of this. It's always a miracle that U.S. government transitions tend to work out somewhat well, one way or the other, given the immense amount of transition of power that goes on — 4,000 appointees, the transition of a $1 trillion budget process, as well as military operations and other risky pursuits that are going on at that time. This will be a virtual transition, in so many ways. But I think they're prepared for that, too. This is something that GSA has thought a lot about over the past few months: How do you execute a remote transition or a safe transition amidst COVID? And I know the Biden team has been thinking deeply about this as well.

FEDTECH: What should we expect out of the Biden administration as far as technology funding and policies?

Schulman: The general thing I can say is that amongst the priorities that they've mentioned — whether it be COVID, the economy, climate or otherwise — all of those things have technology underwriting them as a foundation, whether in terms of how the government operates day-to-day or the American people's access to such. So I think that even when it's not explicitly stated, technology is definitely a priority amongst what we can see so far from the Biden administration. 

The other interesting tea leaf that I was interested in is that amongst the agency review teams that they appointed, one of them was for the U.S. Digital Service. And that really struck me because they have choices to make about which agency review teams to create. There are a lot of agencies and sub-agencies, and some of them receive a whole lot of priority, and some of them receive very little.

And so the fact that there is a USDS agency review team, I would definitely take that as an early read that the Biden administration will at least be interested in continuing this capacity, and also thinking deeply about what are the things that we can do to really advance and innovate beyond USDS, and whether there are ways that we can better serve.

Tia Dufour/The White House