A new challenge for transition planners: Building a government over Zoom

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The Trump administration’s transition team, which has also begun preparing for a potential transfer of power should they lose in November, did not respond to multiple inquiries from POLITICO on how they are navigating the remote work environment.

Forming a new government is hard enough in the best of circumstances. During a global pandemic, when it’s potentially lethal for staffers to huddle in government offices to vet candidates and plot out an agenda for the first 100 days of the new administration, it would present an unprecedented challenge for Biden should he win in November.

Transition team veterans say the amount of planning that gets done before Inauguration Day can determine how much a president accomplishes across his or her entire term, and especially during the first 100 days in office. The already tight window of roughly 70 days between the election and inauguration could also be cut shorter this year if the results are not final for days — or even weeks — after polls close on Nov. 3, as some analysts anticipate.

The remote setup has already upended one defining characteristic of past transitions, in which eager would-be appointees angle for a position by tracking down transition officials around town or hanging out in coffee shops near the transition offices.

One aide for a previous transition team said he would often run into people downtown who were interested in getting involved.

“If I went to a Hill meeting or a social gathering on Capitol Hill, I would see a lot of people there, and they’d say, ‘Hey, you’re working on the transition — what’s it like? Can we grab coffee? Here’s my résumé. A friend of mine is looking to work in Commerce or in Treasury.’ Something like that,” the aide said. “You’d see that a lot.”

That sort of inside-the-Beltway networking is now a lot harder to come by.

Biden transition team members, meanwhile, are already facing the same challenges as much of the country in the pandemic era — juggling work and family while schools are closed, trying to build team camaraderie online, and dealing with the fatigue that comes from back-to-back video calls.

Some of the starkest logistical challenges, however, will come after the election, should Biden win, when transition teams typically balloon in size. Members of the team will have to go in person to secure rooms in government buildings to review sensitive national security information — a situation where it’s difficult to maintain social distance, and one that can’t be replicated remotely.

“You’re not doing classified briefings on Zoom,” said John Podesta, who helped lead transition efforts for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Speaking at an event Friday hosted by the Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service, Podesta added, “That gives a whole other layer and dimension of difficulty to operate in a classified environment when homes haven’t been built for that.”

In the past, hundreds of transition officials have also begun visiting federal agencies and meeting with employees as soon as a few days after the election. But those so-called “beachhead teams” will have to be re-imagined, as vast swathes of the federal government continue working remotely.

“It will be hard to develop a relationship and trust with people over phone or Zoom,” warned one adviser to Biden, who has assisted on multiple previous presidential transitions. “It really underscores the need to have people in the transition who have already been in the buildings and have preexisting relationships with the career people — otherwise it will be less productive a process.”

Similar difficulties could arise as the team moves through the vetting process for political appointees and starts to conduct interviews.

“When you’re trying to evaluate personnel, there’s no substitute for sitting across the table from somebody,” said Chris Lu, executive director of Barack Obama’s 2008 transition. He noted, however, that the Biden team already has experience hiring staff during the pandemic, having recently been through it during the vice presidential selection process.

Others worry about the team’s ability to learn how to work together in the few short months of the transition if people have to remain socially distant.

Robert Rizzi, an attorney who represented people in both parties navigating the appointment process during past transitions, cited the Obama team’s 2008 office in downtown D.C. helping shape the culture of the administration to come.

“They were all together in one building. There were no corner offices. Everyone was in the same modest space with government furniture and their names on yellow sticky notes on their door — even Rahm Emanuel,” he recalled. “They were all walking around the halls talking to each other just like a freshman dorm. It was wonderful. So the unity or collegiality that comes from 70-some days in the trenches together — that won’t be as intense now.”

Rizzi also noted that the remote setup opens up opportunities for information to slip out — either intentionally or accidentally.

“I worry a little bit about communication security,” he said. “Anytime you have stuff uploaded online or sent around by email, there’s always a risk that someone won’t be careful — though I think people are much more cautious now after the Wikileaks scandal.”

And with everyone stuck at home right now, digital security is not the only concern.

“If there are 10 people on a Zoom call, and just one of them lives in an apartment in Adams Morgan where their roommate can listen in, that’s not good,” Rizzi noted, referring to a D.C. neighborhood popular with 20-something staffers.

A Biden transition official said the team is working with the General Services Administration and other partners “to ensure transition staff have access to a secure IT environment utilizing best-in-class practices.”

Despite the logistical challenges, people working on the current transition and those who have worked on past teams say being forced to go remote also has major advantages — allowing people to participate no matter where they live, for example, and shifting away from a culture where well-connected people who go to the right parties have an edge in getting hired in the new administration.

“You want to find the most qualified people,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress and co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s transition team in 2016. “Not people who are already in D.C. and who know somebody and happen to be in the right place at the right time.”

Those involved in current transition planning and those involved in past transitions say Biden’s team has several advantages that will mitigate the challenges ahead. The former vice president and his closest advisers have decades of government experience in Washington. Technology has evolved enough to allow for staffers to video-conference, sign documents and research potential nominees from their couches. And, perhaps most crucially, the pandemic began more than six months ago, giving everyone time to adjust to working from home.

“Like many organizations around the country, the Biden transition team will continue to do our work remotely,” a transition official told POLITICO. “Our team is following the direction of public health experts and medical professionals to develop a plan to keep our staff and their families safe.”

For now, transition team staffers and advisers have settled into remote routines: long days stacked with video calls, which give team members a peek inside each other’s homes. Some advisers see a benefit to the virtual policy briefings, in which Biden sometimes participates from home.

“He’s taking notes, and then he glares at you, and he asks tough questions,” one person close to the transition said of the former vice president. “It’s great.”

And as with any remote work set-up, calls have been peppered at times with various family interruptions.

“People will think they’re in a secluded room in their house, and then their kid will run right in and say, ‘Get off the TV!’ and they’ll say, ‘I’ll be there in a minute’ and the kid will say, ‘No, now!’ or ‘You don’t care about me!’ or something really painful,” the transition adviser said.

“But Biden is a very family-friendly guy, and everyone’s very understanding,” he continued. “We all get that everyone is doing their best.”

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