A transition vet offers tips to Trump’s NASA transition team

At the time of publication, there were conflicting reports on whether or when there will be a NASA transition team and, if so, how many individuals will compose such a team. On the assumption that some sort of “landing party” — however structured or short-lived — eventually is assigned to the agency, the following unsolicited advice is offered.

Dear NASA transition team member:

I have no doubt you are feeling elated at playing a part in history, while feeling profoundly stressed with so much to do in so little time.

I can relate.

After the hotly contested 2000 race, I was honored to lead George W. Bush’s NASA transition team. I remember the excitement of playing a role, however modest, in laying the foundation for a new president and his team. Remember as you enter NASA Headquarters, the political leadership and the civil servants will be taking your measure just as much as you will be measuring them. And if you have ambitions to work in the new administration, the added stress comes from knowing that your performance is equivalent to a very intense job interview.

My own experience was overall positive. With very few exceptions, NASA officials and support staff worked with us in the spirit of doing what was right for the country. With that said, I am hopeful your team will include someone with appropriate inside knowledge of the agency. If not, you are vulnerable to numerous ways the system can hide issues that should be known upfront to the new team. For example, it was several months before NASA officials volunteered details on an internal space exploration initiative that had been developed without the knowledge of the previous administration. They were afraid premature disclosure would lead to its termination. It was a program worthy of support. If we’d been briefed earlier, we could have provided greater support for it.

It is a heady time. After filling out the paperwork to get the necessary temporary clearances and other personnel-related administrivia and receiving the marching orders from the transition leadership on the major policy themes they want emphasized, you and your comrades-in-arms are now set to pay your initial visits to the agency.

Rumor mills and sudden Friends

You will also be subject to many rumors. Information is power in D.C. Any tidbit of information, no matter how trivial, is worth something to the consultants, lobbyists, journalists, bloggers, and self-appointed social media space policy mavens who are constantly trying to demonstrate their inside knowledge. And many people with an interest in the issues within your portfolio are not beyond greatly exaggerating their level of access.

I’ve lived and worked in the nation’s capital for 40 years and can attest to the hypocrisy that has always been a growth industry within the Beltway. But I have to say that in the wake of this election, I have never seen anything like the hypocrisy among the political class. The very people who disdained Donald Trump on the Monday before the election were currying for political favor within 24 hours of Hillary Clinton’s concession phone call. By now, I am sure you have discovered  many “friends” you never knew existed the day before the election.

Drinking from the fire hydrant

The other phenomenon you will experience is that your world suddenly becomes very narrow. While there will be much speculation on your team’s activities by blog sites, trade publications, general press and rumor mongering, you and your team will be blissfully oblivious to it all. You are tasked with a momentous job: drinking from a fire hydrant of information from the agency, along with other high-pressure streams from Congress, industry and academia. Believe me, between the schedule pressures imposed on you by the president-elect’s team and coming up to speed on the agency’s policy, programmatic, budgetary, and personnel challenges, you will have no time to absorb what uninformed outsiders are saying.

When you come to NASA, you and your team will be assigned a location at NASA Headquarters, which will become your transition office for processing agency materials and meeting with your team and select agency officials. I recommend you choose to meet officials in their offices and treat the transition office as a hide-away for the team to collect its thoughts and lay out future plans.

Bureaucracies relish process and paperwork, so prepare yourself to be offered a lovely set of tabbed notebooks (in physical or electronic form). These will include background on all the major programs, position descriptions of all senior officials at HQ and the field centers, budget history and out-year projections. It is worth poring through, but don’t forget  the notebooks represent what the bureaucracy and the outgoing administration want you and the new administration to see.

As useful as these materials may be, the personal discussions with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, his senior staff, and the associate and assistant administrators will be the most insightful in terms of highlighting the challenges that lay in wait. Bolden is gracious and hospitable and has no doubt instructed his staff to put aside personal views and to be as forthcoming and cooperative as possible. Also, you’d be wise to talk to project-level people to get a feel for operations and culture.  Most will be genuinely interested in assisting the new team.

You will also want to do what I and my transition team colleague, Scott Pace, did which was walk around headquarters unaccompanied for informal chats with NASA employees. You will likely pick up useful nuggets that may provide additional “color” and  insight into what you are hearing from the administrator’s ninth floor offices. These informal chats will also give you and the team a sense of the morale in the agency as the civil servants anxiously await major leadership changes.

 Personnel Matters

One of the most salient challenges you will be facing will be recruiting talented personnel to fill the senior political ranks of the agency. In NASA’s case, there are only a handful of political positions to fill. This entails the Senate-confirmed positions (Administrator, Deputy Administrator, Chief Financial Officer, Inspector General) and seven or so Schedule C, or non-Senate-confirmed positions. Most of NASA’s senior positions are non-political and there are specific statutes and regulations governing the career Senior Executive Service ranks during a political transition. Because NASA’s pool of political appointees is small compared to other agencies, it means that who you select to fill those positions to carry out the new president’s policies is all the more critical.

President-elect Trump is also the first modern president to come to office beholden to so few campaign loyalists looking for jobs. That means that the administration will be less constrained in reaching out to new sources for talent. Furthermore, the political reality is that given the nature of the Senate confirmation process, it is likely that President Trump will not have his new administrator named and confirmed before spring. That means the transition team will be suggesting a Schedule C (likely a member of the transition team), combined with an Obama hold-over or a career SES as acting NASA administrator, to manage the agency between Inauguration Day and when the new boss enters headquarters.

The Vetting Process

Having experienced the transition of two NASA administrators, the challenge of finding the right person to serve is not trivial. If you opt for a talented business executive, it’s easy to tantalize them with the prospect of running the world’s preeminent space agency. But the fantasy usually falls flat as they contemplate the torture of filling out reams of confirmation-related paperwork. Depending on the complexity of their finances and background, they will have to hire a pricey law firm to assist them. FBI field agents will canvass their neighbors and colleagues to ensure that what has been stated on the forms aligns with what others have to say about them.

If the nominee survives those vetting stages, they then have to deal with the “joy” of the Senate confirmation process, which has its own detailed questionnaires that the nominee or their attorneys will need to complete (They will need the attorneys to ensure that they are not inadvertently perjuring themselves). And if they manage to survive that process they can expect the added joy of having twenty-something-year -old staffers doing a deep dive into their documents, as well as anything and everything that has ever been written or said about them. If they have lived a full and interesting life, they have probably said or done some things that may qualify as dumb or slightly embarrassing. If they’ve forgotten about any of that, they need not fret. Believe me, a Senate staffer will eventually find it. And depending on the political agenda of the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which conducts confirmation hearings for NASA nominees, or the desire of anonymous staff sources to make mischief, be assured the embarrassing disclosure will become public.

This is why finding anyone willing to make the leap from industry to life in public service can be challenging.

Your job is not to recruit talent, but the transition team will be asked to define the criteria for the administrator candidates that the White House should consider. That is where you should lay out the range of political, administrative and technical skills that an administrator should possess. If such skills cannot be found in one person, it is important to suggest how the division of skills might be allocated between the administrator and the deputy.

As a former staffer of the National Space Council, I am pleased to hear that the incoming administration wants to re-establish it under the leadership of Vice President-elect Mike Pence. You would be doing him and the future council staff a great service by identifying those strategic space issues that need attention. One of those issues is the need to have an interagency understanding of how NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket can be deployed as both a civil and military asset. I am also hearing informal talk among those who claim to be close to the vice president-elect about potential interest in a review regarding whether and how NASA can achieve efficiencies and cost savings through closing or consolidating certain NASA field centers. The issue of closing down or privatizing some centers crops up every few years. If your team ultimately decides to recommend that issue for consideration, you need to be sure that the pros and cons are thoroughly assessed and that the administration is prepared for the inevitable political backlash.

In the commercial space sector, the incoming administration is the beneficiary of decades of effective pro-commercial space policies and regulations. Although there are areas that need urgent improvements (e.g. modernizing licensing procedures governing commercial satellite imagery), the space industry needs to be assured, sooner than later, that the new administration will build on its predecessor’s commitment to a robust private space industry.

On behalf of those of us, regardless of political affiliation, who believe in strong American civil and commercial space sectors, we are all vested in your success.

 

Courtney A. Stadd was head of George W. Bush’s NASA transition team. He is currently an aerospace management consultant.