Maintaining Technology and Innovation During Government Transitions

January 18, 2021 – By Megan Nguyen

The 2020 U.S. presidential election occurred during one of the most critical periods of our nation’s history, as our governments simultaneously navigated multiple crises. Especially during such periods of transition, one of our government’s cornerstones is providing stability to our country, and digital technology plays a significant role in making that happen. In November 2020, the Beeck Center’s Cori Zarek led an Ideas That Transform event with government technology experts Cass Madison, John Bailey, Natassja Linzau, and Shannon Sartin to surface lessons and recommendations to ensure data, design, technology, and other modern tools and practices can support key decision-makers during presidential transitions.


Watch Ideas That Transform: What It Takes to Support Data and Tech Capacity in Government Transition

Technology and data are imperative to governments because of how they make policy outcomes possible. Digital services are increasingly used to implement policy. For example, the House of Representatives passed House Resolution 965 in response to COVID-19 to allow for virtual congressional deliberations with remote proxy voting. Another example is found in The Chief Data Officer in Government playbook, which discusses how the data collected from digital channels can then be leveraged “to gain greater insights and formulate better policies.” People moving into government positions should have an understanding of both the priorities and the challenges of technology and data in order to build a more comprehensive roadmap to follow for their agencies, particularly for the early days in their new roles.

Takeaway #1: Guiding Documents Preserve Ideas

A more seamless transition can be facilitated by studying any guiding documents created by outgoing agency teams. This allows incoming teams to preserve the value and ideas of previous teams’ work, which might otherwise get lost during the transition. When incoming teams begin their roles with more insight into their predecessors’ work, they are better equipped to continue or build upon it.

Takeaway #2: Evaluate Continuity Between Outgoing and Incoming Teams

It is also important to be cognizant of who started any work that is intended to be continued. For example, Shannon Sartin shared that political appointees typically stay in their positions for around 18 months, which is enough time to get a specific program started, but may not be enough time to see its complete results. For many appointees, the success of their work depends on their successors’ abilities to carry it forward. Those wishing to continue the work of their preceding political appointees must be mindful that the outgoing and incoming teams may have different capacities, skill sets, and training. It is critical for incoming teams to determine whether they are compatible to advance their predecessors’ efforts, otherwise, it may be necessary to restructure the vision of the work.

Takeaway #3: Embrace Transitions as Potential for Meaningful Changes

Finally, government transitions should be viewed as opportunities for success as much as they are viewed as periods of disarray. Cass Madison described transitions as “the heart and soul of government.” They are opportunities to repitch ideas to incoming government leaders, especially those with aligning interests. The Beeck Center’s 2016 Architecture of Innovation report discusses how transitions should “embrace innovation and build the necessary architecture to promote and institutionalize its use as a means to achieve outcomes.” Transitions can invite moments of crisis that give government agencies the momentum to make immediate, impactful change. Key decision-makers must understand how to mitigate concerns of transitions and leverage these transitions to best serve public needs.

Megan Nguyen is a junior in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. As a Student Analyst, Megan explores how data practices and digital services can help governments better serve public needs.

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