Transition is on my mind a lot lately. I have just experienced my own transition from the non-profit sector to the private sector. As with most transitions, you never fully know what the outcome will be beforehand. In my case, I love the high speed, free-wheeling environment of making good ideas become reality. But I can’t make things happen in my new world without understanding the ins and outs of my partnership, and building a strong bond with my partners who have been in the trenches for a while. This understanding and these bonds only become real once you are on the inside and have responsibility for the outcomes. No matter how much you prepare, you don’t fully understand until you see all the cards.

Some of you have seen my comments and heard me talk on the Department of Homeland Security’s transition. Several months ago I was less than enthused with the progress the Department had made, and while I’m still not jumping up and down, I think the Department has made good progress. I don’t worry too much about the established agencies — the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and the Secret Service all have a long history of managing their agencies through presidential transitions.

Secretary Chertoff recognizes the critical need to have a transition plan in place for the entire department and has taken steps to do that. He has sought outside counsel from the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC), the Council on Excellence in Government, the Homeland Security Institute, the National Academy of Public Administration, and others. He has appointed a career Senior Executive to manage the transition and is ensuring that each political principal has a career deputy. Paul Schneider, the acting Deputy Secretary, has extensive experience with transitions and is taking the Department’s transition planning seriously. A number of Senior Executives are actively preparing for the transition, identifying and prioritizing key issues.

Secretary Chertoff and the Department are doing their part; the three remaining presidential candidates now need to do their part. One of the key decisions the new president must make is to select an enlightened transition manager for DHS. By enlightened transition manager I am not referring to the new Secretary, but the person who, in November, has responsibility for scoping out the department from the inside, teeing up issues, evaluating strengths and weaknesses of people and programs, and preparing the new team to be up and running on day one.

DHS, more so than any other department, cannot afford an aloof, take-no-prisoners approach to the transition. Most departments have a strong bureaucracy and established processes that can temper the whims of an ill chosen transition team. DHS has neither the strong bureaucracy nor the established processes.

Based on my own experience during the transition effort to initially set up DHS, as well as decades in public service, I will offer five pieces of advice for the next president’s DHS transition team, laying out one each day over the next several days:

  1. 1. Pick the transition manager (TM) with care.
    The new President will have staked out positions on various aspects of homeland security. The ideological push should come from the new Secretary, not the TM. While the TM will of course be aligned with the President-elect’s outlook, during the transition the TM should endeavor to understand the issues from the inside, be a keen observer of what is really happening within the department, seek to establish a rapport with the career executives, and should make sure the department is ready for day one. The TM should understand both the bureaucracy and the politics associated with a new administration. The more successful the TM is in the transition period, the more successful the new Secretary will be in the long run.

Tomorrow: Be ready for Day 1.