Guest Opinion

What to Expect in a Mayoral Transition

Politics professor Marco Lowe explains the transition period and what's at stake.

With Marco Lowe November 7, 2017

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With the Seattle mayoral race dominating the news, readers might miss an underreported but critical piece of this election: For the first time since 1969, the city’s next Mayor will have a dramatically shorter transition phase.

Most people don't think that much about the important time between the election ending and being sworn into the office. But this is the period when the incoming mayor—Jenny Durkan or Cary Moon—hires her staff, department directors, and sets the course and tone for her term. Most years, this is all accomplished in just under 60 days.

In 2017? It will be done in three weeks.

The certification for the general election will be November 28, and the new mayor will take office immediately afterward. That's like planning a weekend to pack your house before moving and instead being told to get it done by Saturday afternoon. In the rush, some paint will be scraped, and china smashed, but the van is still leaving on time no matter how much stuff is in it.

Both candidates know the situation. They will of course have some staffing choices made by then, but many of the decisions, particularly department heads, will play out over the winter as one of them settles into the office. This short transition is far from a calamity, but the pressure of both governing and building your administration are enough alone. Together, it could weigh heavily on the new mayor.

Given that neither candidate has gone through this before, you hope whoever it is will bring on people to help who have seen this crazy, necessary, and critical phase before. There will be so much incoming…and so much that needs to be done. The only analogy that I think fits is trying to do tryouts for a soccer team during a hurricane.

But it's important to be familiar with the process and better understand what a mayor-elect (and her administration) will go through in the coming months. What will be accomplished in this transition, and what must be done? 

Phase 1: Everyone’s Best Friend

As soon as the polls close and results come in, the winning candidate, or both in a close race, will be inundated with offers from those who wish to work for them, invitations to events, help to fundraise for debt closure, and to “advise”—in other words, help imprint a direction or policy on a new administration. To a weary candidate and her team, these offers are daunting.

The now mayor-elect and staff are exhausted. Even in this short transition, she should take that time—leave town and turn her phone off. But not before pulling together a staff and transition director, preferably one who has been through a transition before and knows the ins and outs of city government. These people will help to sort through the task of setting up the administration (both mayor’s office staff and department directors) and assembling the transition team who are prominent volunteers.

What will that transition team look like? They will be supporters, civic and community leaders, and elected officials. These volunteers will be put to work—hiring for the office, setting priorities for the new administration, and working with the mayor-elect and staff to set up outreach meetings with constituencies around the city. The team may also meet with city council and other current or former elected officials.

The mayor-elect also has an important decision to make: whether to invite people who opposed the mayor’s election. By bringing on opponents, even an invitation that is not accepted, a mayor-elect can begin mending a rift out of the gate. Without that gesture, she risks losing critical allies. And some opponents often spend the coming years attempting to ensure there won't be a reelection.

Phase 2: Build the Office, and the Cabinet

Before hiring a team for the mayor's office, the mayor-elect and advisors should formulate what type of office structure they want, and then hire to fill it. Some offices look like a pyramid, others have many people at the top in a flatter design. It's a great assignment for transition staff: Find as many mayoral office organizational charts as possible for similar-sized cities.

After this research, the mayor-elect can pick one that's a fit for her leadership style. This needs to be done right at the outset. If the office structure is ill-conceived, and the office doesn’t function even close to the level required, or warring camps can appear to vie for power after the new mayor takes the oath.

In choosing staff, the mayor-elect will of course look to campaign staff and folks who share her vision for the city. Other important points to consider are past city (or at least government) experience, a thorough vetting of everyone, and intentional diversity to reflect Seattle. These last three steps can help launch a term off on strong footing and avoid many of the first-year mistakes a weak team can create.

Department directors are further from to the mayor's office but essential to the mayor’s success, as the policy of an administration is implemented at this level. Some ideas to help in filling director positions are similar to staff hiring: Experience, vetting and diversity are critical. But to delve into the obvious, do they have management experience? Many potential directors are brilliant leaders in their field, but are not built for running a 1,000-plus-person team and can cause the administration headaches in the future.

Phase 3: Operations

How a mayoral office functions is critical to its success. And some say a functional, effective mayoral office is hard to find. The pressures on the team are tremendous, and naturally there will be friction. Building an office culture of expectations and accountability helps to keep the team on track.

Some considerations for a new office include establishing the chain of command, the system for how to create policy, and scheduling and briefing the mayor on day-to-day events she'll have to attend. 

For any elected official starting an administration, the period of transition is one of recovery and discovery. The mayor-elect and her team have little time to make decisions that will directly impact the effectiveness of the administration. Even more difficult is the fact a mistake, even one recognized, is difficult to repair in a rapidly moving mayor’s office.

Marco Lowe teaches politics for Seattle University's Master's in Public Administration program. Before that, he worked for a number of campaigns and elected officials. He helped three newly elected executives—former governor Gary Locke and former Seattle mayors Greg Nickels and Mike McGinn—put together their administrations.

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