4 keys to a successful Trump transition

Professional Services Council President David Berteau shares four keys to a successful Trump transition and what contractors should watch for in the weeks ahead.

Election Day is over, and the voters have decided. America’s long experiment with democracy is entering a new chapter. On Jan. 20, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as America’s 45th president. Republicans will retain majorities in both the House and Senate in the 115th Congress, but with smaller margins.

What does the new administration and Congress need to do, and what will that mean for government contractors?

No campaign spends precious resources on their transition plans until and unless they are sure they are going to win. With such a close race, the Trump team has a lot of ground to make up in transition planning and in preparing for the new administration.

We in the government contracting community will focus a lot on who the new team brings in, but it’s not just the “who” that’s important, it’s also the “what”. Here are four key pieces of advice to the incoming team.

First, make it easier to bring good people in to government.

We cannot leave governing to novices; we need experienced, competent leaders who can produce results. Trump’s victory speech indicated that he wants to bring the best people into government. It’s important that they comply with ethics laws and prevent any actual or potential conflicts of interest, but potential managers and leaders should not be blackballed simply because they worked for a company that does business with, or is regulated by, the federal government. There are enough checks and balances in place to prevent even the perception of favoritism, and America’s problems need all the talent we can get to work on them.

Second, keep good programs going.

The best way to restore and rebuild trust in government is to perform better, deliver results, and reduce costs. The combination of trial and error, investment, and development has led to programs that are well on their way to success. Too often, new teams make their mark by stopping ongoing work to start something new. The new team needs to preserve continuity in successful programs across all federal agencies.

Third, act quickly to restore comity and a working relationship between the executive and legislative branches.

While this work starts with the White House and congressional leadership, it must also be built between cabinet agencies and their relevant committees. For instance, the new Defense Department leaders must reach out to the chair and ranking members of the congressional armed services committees and the defense appropriations subcommittees. There is ample room to develop common ground and identify areas where progress can be made, helping to clear toxicity from the governing framework. 

Each of these key points – bringing in competent people, maintaining continuity of good programs, and building a working relationship with Congress – will strengthen governing, and the American public need clear signs that we are still governing ourselves well. However, the new administration also needs to deliver results.

Fourth, expand public faith in governing is to deliver results through the partnership and collaboration of government and its supporting contractors.

This vital partnership depends on a fair process that promotes real competition and rewards good performance. It relies on career civil servants and uniformed personnel who serve as government program managers and contracting officers and on their ability to communicate with one another and with the qualified vendors on whom they rely.

The partnership suffers when one side attacks the other or seeks to lay blame for shortcomings. The Trump administration’s success will depend on its recognition of and action on this underlying reality.

History shows that presidents who are successful get off to a fast start. There are hurdles in the way, with no agreement on fixing the Budget Control Act spending caps for fiscal 2018, a debt ceiling that must be addressed next spring, and a new budget to send to Congress by May at the latest.

There is still crucial work to be completed by President Obama and the current Congress. Here is what they should do: enact an omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal 2017 and pass the National Defense Authorization Act and other key bills like the Modernizing Government Technology Act of 2016.

There are too many other challenges already facing President-elect Trump and the new Congress to have even more work left to them by this Congress.

That’s what Congress should do, but anti-spending forces in Congress were strengthened in this election, making it more attractive to punt fiscal 2017 problems into next year. That should not happen. President-elect Trump and his team should make it clear that Congress should finish their work for this year before adjourning.

What should government contractors watch for?

First, see if Congress replaces the continuing resolution (CR) with an fiscal 2017 omnibus appropriations bill.

Second, as key members of the incoming cabinet are named, look for competent people who support continuity of good programs and building relationships with Congress.

Third, watch who becomes committee chairs and ranking members, because that will foretell the success of the new administration’s outreach to those committees to work together to govern.

Finally, prepare for some near term new regulations and push for new contract awards and obligations, to the extent permitted by a CR, as the outgoing team tries to finish what it can in the short time it has left. 

Data show that contract obligations are down in January of inauguration years, and 2018 budget uncertainties may slow purchasing actions for months thereafter. We’ll be validating these trends in this column in the coming weeks. After that, expect program slowdowns and delays until the fiscal 2018 budget situation clears up. 

In the meantime, contractors should buckle up for a ride with unexpected twists and turns for weeks to come.

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