Presidential transition? Time to show spine.


“To thine own self be true” – Shakespeare (Polonius’ advice to Hamlet)

“Plans are nothing. Planning is everything” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Periodic, fair, and open elections define any representative democracy, and the United States is no exception. For all their imperfections, these regular governmental re-sets offer opportunity for reflecting as a country on where we’ve been, re-committing to, re-articulating, and on occasion re-defining our national priorities, surfacing options for how we might get there, and much more. Elections draw us all in, even those who wind up not registering, or failing to vote in the actual event. And after each election, it’s always time to move on. No one escapes. And no one dodges the consequences, good and bad. We’re truly all in it together, whether we’re “driving the car” or “along for the ride.”

With such high stakes, elections are also almost always stressful and exhausting, not just for the candidates but the nation as a whole. These days the politicking is almost unending. There’s little or no respite. Back in the day, even-numbered years were for public posturing and campaigning. Odd-numbered years were for getting things done. There’s no longer such a clear-cut distinction[1]. What’s more, elections tend to be close. And in our currently polarized, gerrymandered society, in which the country is diverse even if neighborhoods aren’t, fewer people see election choices as questions of degree. Most see the possible outcomes as radically different. Tensions are high.

Multiply all this by two if you live in or around Washington, DC. This is a company town, with the federal government as the company. Here, every aspect of life revolves around one or more of its three branches – executive, legislative, and judicial. Huge national and global businesses make their headquarters or support governmental affairs offices here. Even universities have DC offices to look after their policy and financial interests. Some 3000 or more non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) also call DC home. Although these organizations have diverse concerns, they share one common view:

The one thing standing between any incoming administration (and Congress) and their complete happiness is (our) advice.

The result? A two-year, four-year rite of passage like no other – the preparation of hundreds if not thousands of transition documents to share wisdom with the newcomers. Incoming political leaders are met with a blizzard of advice and requests on every aspect of the national agenda. Some documents speak to the well-publicized issues: jobs, foreign policy, education, health care, national security, immigration… Others speak to the less-visible detail: the needs of the elderly, pistachio growers, coal miners, patent lawyers – even Earth scientists and service providers.

Document development can begin more than a year before the election. Small writing teams are assembled, and rough out several iterations over as many months, making periodic refinements in response to broader corporate input or NGO membership.

Such teams operate under structures and procedures unique to each institution, but they share certain common approaches. They ask themselves questions such as: Who is the intended audience? (Usually, the incoming Congress and/or administration.) What is our message? What do we want that audience to do after they’ve finished reading our document? (Usually, a blend of policy decisions and actions toward certain desired outcomes for society as a whole, plus beneficence toward the corporation’s or NGO’s community.) Recognizing that the incoming political leaders and even their staff are powerful, busy people: With all the competition, how can we we get our audience’s attention and hold it? Can we keep this document under 1000 words? Or to no more than 1-2 pages?

 Of course the reality is that the inbound political teams are laser-focused on each other, and on their personal place in the power scheme that’s about to make up the new political landscape(to say nothing of more mundane matters such as finding a place to live). What’s more, an incoming group such as the 2016 crop might be forgiven for thinking they were elected precisely to ignore establishment advice. Breaking through this mindset, or for that matter getting any single NGO’s signal to stand out against the white-noise background of all the competing documents is not quite so unlikely as winning the lottery, but it comes close.

Why then, do the private sector, academia, and NGO’s devote so much energy, brain power, and effort on transition documents? One answer might lie in that idea of the “intended audience.” In reality, the “intended audience” is not just the incoming administration/Congress, but also includes the corporation’s employees, or the university’s faculty, or the NGO’s members. In light of Eisenhower’s maxim, what matters far more than the low-probability of developing some silver-bullet-message in the contest for the ear of the incoming national leadership is the sharpening or redefining of the organization’s view of its own overarching ideals and purposes. In the context of Polonius’ advice, if an organization can articulate to its satisfaction a vision of its truest self, then, as Polonius goes on to say, “it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Vertebrates, as pictured here and discussed in the previous LOTRW post, provide another parallel. Think of the 1000 words, or the page or two that comprise a transition document as the rudiments – nothing more than a skeletal framework for a national agenda, or an NGO’s functions and purposes. But as the diagram shows, skeletons reveal a great deal about vertebrates. With the skeleton alone, it’s still easy to distinguish birds from fish, or predators from herbivores, or mammals from reptiles, etc. And with the skeleton in hand, it’s possible to put flesh on the bones, and bring the vertebrate to life.

If Polonius had thought to, he could have said, “To thine own spine be true.”

Recent LOTRW posts have attempted to show how rich that fleshing out of the bones looks for the environmental intelligence community. The intelligence bits themselves indeed span hurricanes, air quality, water resources, single-point societal vulnerabilities, threats to biodiversity, but also much, much more. Hundreds of other topics could have been substituted for any one of these. The topics themselves are fractals; they can be subdivided again and again, and still reveal more environmental intelligence that needs to be gleaned. The posts also covered needs of the environmental intelligence community – for observations, for workforce education, for close collaboration with end users (America’s leaders, corporate end users, and the general public, at a place-based level). And finally, but most importantly, the narratives and the flesh on the bones reveal a connection between all that work and the larger national interest: jobs and infrastructure and health care and foreign policy and national security and immigration and all the rest.

Fact is, at an individual level, each of us in the Enterprise has flesh to put on these bones. Each of us has a unique narrative that merits the telling. And transition documents provide a framework for the telling.

What is that framework? Well, in the case of the American Meteorological Society, it goes something like this:

  • we are all about the advance of science and associated technologies and their application for societal benefit
  • we do this through public-private-academic partnership
  • that partnership exists not to feather our own nests but to serve the larger society, both domestically and internationally.

Read the AMS transition document and look for those elements. Read the Front Page commentary provided by AMS president Fred Carr and the Washington Post piece by former AMS President Marshall Shepherd. Put your own narrative on that framework. Then go out and build the relationships and trust with the new administration and Congress.

And together the United States and the rest of humanity will make a little progress on our biggest 21st-century challenge: Living on the Real World.


Read this post with a critical eye? Then you’ll have noticed that two elements that make for a successful transition document have been missing from the discussion. They merit a separate post! More next time.

[1] Much as “rush hour” seems an outworn concept for many of today’s urban commutes. Today’s traffic is snarled all the time.

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2 Responses to Presidential transition? Time to show spine.

  1. Alan Hines says:

    Very Impressive stuff, Mr. Hooke … Wow!!! I’m going to “Share” this on my page. “Hello” to Chris.

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