What Does a Transition Team Do — Especially One with 500-plus Members?

Lee Keough | December 15, 2017 | Politics
Team members say getting work done isn’t really a problem, and that individual voices can be heard

Credit: AP Photo/Julio Cortez, Pool
Gov. Phil Murphy
Activity in Trenton — other than lame-duck legislation and announcements of a few commissioners in the newly elected Murphy administration — has been relatively quiet this month. But under the surface, the state’s cognoscenti have been busy working on the transition.

“We have lots of immediate challenges,” Gov.-elect Phil Murphy told most of the more than 500 members of his transition team Thursday, “and we’re not being helped by Washington. But we’ve asked you to think about the first days of my administration, not just the first 100 days or the first four years, but the future of New Jersey.” Murphy said he was looking for “new ideas” because New Jersey certainly needed a new beginning.

Transition teams are a longstanding tradition, not just in New Jersey, but in other states and at the federal level. But what do they actually do? In this case, it means that more than 500 leaders of various organizations, corporations, unions, as well as advocates and representatives of Rutgers and other universities and well-known “thinkers” gather to identify and offer solutions to pressing issues. (See related story.)

Each committee comes up with a report, the first drafts of which are due early next week, but the final reports will be released to the public in January.

Headed for the circular file?

Some past participants scoff at the whole process, saying that it’s more of a vanity project for participants and a way to engender goodwill by an incoming governor. The reports themselves, they say, usually end up in the dustbin.

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey laughed when asked if that was true, saying “candidly it’s both. It’s an opportunity to engage the wide community, solicit ideas, and frankly demonstrate an expression of gratitude to those supporters who gave sweat equity to the campaign.”

Joel Cantor, director of the Center for State Health Policy, has served on three transition teams, including Murphy’s, agreed with McGreevey that it can be viewed by some as a reward. “I’ve been known to say that it’s the cheapest form of patronage — because you don’t have to pay for it. It’s often considered a status thing by some and let’s face it, everyone is eager to give input.”

But Cantor thinks these teams can be useful for governors because ideas and priorities bubble to the surface. “You can try and nail down an agenda for the first 100 days.”

McGreevey agreed, and said the reports don’t often get ignored — unless they reach conclusions hostile to the governor and the eventual department commissioners. Rather, he said, they can be used as a way to drive consensus and action.

“These reports have three constituencies — the governor and the governor’s office, the cabinet, and the public constituencies at large,” said McGreevey, who noted that the ideas raised that are closest to the governor’s heart are held in high esteem and acted upon by the governor’s council.

Going native

“(Former Gov. Thomas) Kean has said that within six months, commissioners ‘will go native,’ meaning they will identify with the department’s staff. And that’s true,” said McGreevey. “It sort of has to happen in order for bureaucracies to function” because departments have their own internal demands.

So, a transition report can be used to spur action within the first 100 days before that happens, said McGreevey. And the third audience — public constituencies — drives consensus.

McGreevey also said these teams were useful to identify strong candidates for high positions within the administration. As an example, he mentioned Cliff Lacey, a cardiologist McGreevey grew to admire for how he worked with others on the transition, including representatives of hospitals, insurers, and healthcare advocates. Lacey also demonstrated his command of issues. “I approached him about being commissioner of health, and it was the furthest thing from his mind,” said McGreevey. “I saw a gifted person with a great mind, widely admired and with the demonstrated knowledge of the issues.” Lacey turned out to be a great choice, he said, because he really understood the hospital industry at a time when it was in flux. “When we had to make difficult decisions, he applied great critical thinking and was a great firewall for me.”

Every governor is different

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who is now serving on his fourth transition committee, agreed with that idea, saying a couple of the previous governors clearly used the transition as a testing ground. But every transition is different, he said, because every governor is different.

He pointed to McGreevey as one governor who ended up implementing many of the recommendations (at least in the environment), while he said former Gov. Christie Whitman was enthusiastic at the beginning but ended up not following much of the advice.

All involved this time around said the biggest difference with Murphy was how he organized the committees. They are organized thematically — a “Stronger and Fairer Economy” and “Education, Access and Opportunity” — instead of just education or another government department.
Even the Environment and Energy committee is different in that it is focused on policies, said Tittel. With teams organized by departments, they tended to focus on the workings and needs of the departments.

“In this case, we don’t focus on the agency itself,” said Tittel. “This is much broader, as we’re looking at clean water, climate change, big topics like that.”

Murphy said the change was by design, as the goal of a “stronger and fairer economy” intersects with many different constituencies and groups. “It all feeds into one another. We must stitch these ideas together.”

A supersized transition

The sheer size of the transition, however, has put off several members. Typically, a team would have 10-12 members and hash things out among themselves. These groups can have a presumably unwieldy 40 or more members. The Law and Justice committee alone has about 51 members and nine leaders.

Lynne Strickland, managing partner of education consultancy School House Strategies, questions whether the approximately 600 team members in the Murphy transition will compromise a realistic chance for a practical work product. “When so many are invited, the few that did not get an invitation stand out even more. And actually, getting a specific recommendation to solid consensus has to be cumbersome, perhaps even controversial.”

Tittel says unwieldiness hasn’t been that much of a problem since most of the work is not at a meeting but involves sending email, and forwarding source material and reports. “I send ideas,” said Tittel. “The size is just different, as it means you look at things more broadly, versus a small tightknit committee.”

Cantor agrees but adds that it means the governor’s team ends up doing more of the work. “The staff becomes very much in the driver’s seat,” he said, because with seven “leaders” of the health team, the thinking can get diffuse. However, that can be much better than one strong leader, who rejects ideas that he doesn’t agree with. “That can get very acrimonious.”

In the end, said Tittel, these transition committees have their uses. “But the main thing is what they do in office and who they appoint to run things. You can put anything you want in a transition document” but it doesn’t matter in the end.

John Mooney contributed to this story.