• Introduction and animation
  • Moving in and out of the White House
  • Project management is key to resourcing a project

Find out how you can make the move to PRINCE2®

The handover of power from one US president to the next constitutes one of the most complex and challenging projects in the world and requires months of planning, an army of staff and substantial budgets.

The newly inaugurated president, in effect the new Leader of the Free World, will head up a federal government of over 4 million employees and control a budget of over 4 trillion dollars.

This new animation from AXELOS highlights the scale and complexity of this momentous presidential transition and the need for world-class project management in achieving a smooth transition of power.

The most complex handover on the planet

On 20 January 2017 the next president of the USA will be inaugurated and a new federal administration will be set into motion. On the same day, President Obama will finally move out of the White House and the new president will move in. The handover of power from one president to the next constitutes one of the most complex and challenging projects in the world and requires months of planning, an army of staff and substantial budgets.

In the first 100 days of their administrations, both the Bush and the Obama presidencies faced considerable challenges that resulted from handover logistics that, for understandable reasons, were less than optimum. This situation prompted Congress to take the best practice from the 2008-9 Bush-Obama transition and to codify it into law with the aim of ensuring that the new president’s administration is fit for purpose and ready to govern confidently and authoritatively from day one. The physical act of the changeover of occupancy at the White House is just the tip of the iceberg: after all, the president and his team head up a federal team of over 4 million employees and the federal government’s budget is over four trillion dollars. Combined with the added complexity of the actual physical act of moving out of the White House, this handover is complex not least because of the consideration needed to be given to changes following the presidential election.

The presidential transition process consists of three main stages: the election campaign, the inauguration and the new administration’s first 100 days. The planning and project management for these phases are undertaken by various agency heads, government employees and volunteers, who are given responsibility for ensuring that the entire process runs as smoothly as possible and that the incoming President and team are able to hit the ground running following the inauguration on January 20th.

To give incoming presidents the support and structure that is needed for a smooth transition of power, many of the best practices from the 2008-09 Bush-Obama transition were codified into law on 18 March 2016 by President Obama. The new law gave federal career executives a bigger role in the presidential transition process and built on the reforms of 2010 Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act. All of this was based on the lessons learned and the sharing of knowledge between offices as to how to run a successful transition.

This was not the first time that a government had turned best practice into guidance, standards and frameworks. In the 1980s, drawing on learning from both project successes and project failures, the UK’s Cabinet Office brought together industrial and academic knowledge of best practice in project management to create what is known today as PRINCE2®. PRINCE2 is arguably the world’s most practised project management methodology; it is used across multiple industries globally to help deliver projects and is adopted and adapted into organizations as a means of ensuring effective project delivery.

Find out how you can make the move to PRINCE2®

We cannot know for certain whether PRINCE2 methodology has been used in the Presidential transition in the US, it is almost certain that the principles underlying the methodology have been put into practice throughout the project. Parallels can be drawn between the Presidential handover and aspects of the PRINCE2 methodology, such as ‘Learn from experience’, ‘Defined roles and responsibilities,’ and ‘Manage by stages’.

Despite the complexities and challenges facing the project delivery, the actual move itself is completed in just under six hours following the inauguration of a new president. Throughout the project the principles and best practices have been instrumental in the extensive planning of this historical move, turning what could have been chaos, into perfectly project managed order.

As the President knows: Project management is key to resourcing a project

On 20 January 2017 President Obama will hand over power of the United States to the newly-inaugurated President, who for the next four years will head up a federal government of over four million employees and control a budget of over four trillion dollars. Not surprisingly, this handover has been described as the most complex transition on the planet.

Adding particular complexity to the transition is the fact that over 4,000 people working in various political roles, including many important leadership and policymaking positions, will be replaced by the incoming administration. It represents an enormous undertaking to find qualified people to fill these roles in the first year of a presidential administration. This undertaking is of critical importance: without these people, the federal government cannot work effectively. The implications of any failures are wide-reaching for the USA and for the entire world.

This crucial recruitment workstream requires months of planning, which starts in April, six months before Election Day (November 8th) and dovetails with each candidate’s presidential campaign.

The recruitment process starts with the appointment of the Head of Presidential Appointments. The key objective of the Presidential Appointments team is to select, vet and secure the nomination of 4,000 Presidential appointees, 1,000 of which will require Senate approval. The team must ensure that 400 of those Senate-confirmed appointments are in place in the President’s office by August 2017.

The aim of the project is to find and appoint the right people to drive and implement the new President’s policies. Like any project, it needs the right infrastructure to reduce the risk of failure. For instance, the following elements need to be in place:

  • Resource to carry out vital background checks on candidates
  • Systems and software to process over 300,000 job applications
  • A project plan to avoid potential delays on major appointments, bearing in mind the possibility of slow Senate approval.

The Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015 becomes law

To give incoming Presidents the support and structure that is needed for a smooth transition of power, many of the best practices of the 2008-09 Bush-Obama transition were codified into law on 18 March 2016 by President Obama. The new law gave federal career executives a bigger role in the Presidential transition process and built on the reforms of 2010 Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act.

Learning from the experience of previous project failures

Of course it is highly unlikely that any project other than the US Presidential transition will need to resource the appointment of 4,000 senior-level executives in its first year. But, when managing a project of any kind, it is vital to be conscious of the most common causes of project failure: a viable business case and project objectives that are not adequately aligned; a lack of skills in project management, and neglecting to break down development and implementation into controlled stages.

By learning from experience, the Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015 sought to minimize the risk of failure in future Presidential transitions. PRINCE2®, the world’s most-practised project management methodology, grew out of a comparable desire to maximize the success of important projects. PRINCE2’s methodology is designed to ensure good practice in projects of any kind, notably by removing common failure mechanisms. Its robustness is such that it is now the global de-facto standard for project management.