It's one thing to marvel at the abstract idea—and the immensity of the task—of an orderly transfer of power from one administration to the next. But how does the process look from the inside, in the government offices that employ thousands of regular career workers but are overseen by soon-to-be-replaced political appointees?
Take the Department of Energy. It employs about 115,000 people. About 100 to 150 are political appointees whose jobs are likely to change hands in January. The rest are contract workers or federal employees, almost all of whom will stay, unless they choose to leave on their own.
President-elect Barack Obama's selections, of course, won't officially take over for President Bush's appointees before Inauguration Day, but the swapping out of personnel is just one step in a much larger, often complicated, and prolonged process.
The DOE is, after all, a quietly vital government agency. In addition to its relatively tame policy initiatives and research efforts, it is responsible for cleaning up nuclear sites and monitoring nuclear stockpiles—tasks with obvious national security implications. Such duties can't be handed off without a certain degree of coordination and planning. "It's vitally important that the incoming team listens to career officials and others who have been here for a long time and know how the place operates," Acting Deputy Secretary of Energy Jeffrey Kupfer, who is heading up the department's transition effort from the administration's side, told U.S. News.
DOE, says Kupfer, began working on its transition plans back in early 2008 by appointing longtime, nonpolitical government workers to oversee the turnover in each of their offices, and preparing briefs and manuals and other documents to explain, in detail, how the department works and carries out different tasks.
In the main office, physical space has been set aside for several members of the Obama transition team to sit before they officially take power. As of Wednesday afternoon, "no one on the Obama transition team has specifically reached out to the energy department," Kupfer said, but he added that a call could come anytime.
Historically, presidential administrations put their own stamp on energy policy priorities—biofuel programs grew dramatically under President Bush, for example—and Obama, who has pledged to invest $150 billion in new energy programs, is expected to shape the department to bolster research and development for renewable energy, among other things.
The main events of the next two months, however, will likely revolve around a handful of key appointments, in particular the selection of the next secretary of energy, who in turn is responsible for filling out the department. But even before that happens, Obama's transition team leaders could designate a handful of workers to shadow the department to ease the process along. "In the past, sometimes you have had a transition team [for a specific department] identified before the new secretary is selected," Kupfer says. "Then it's the new secretary's call if those people stay on in an operational role after January 20."
For now, speculation abounds in Washington about who Obama will pick for the role. Among those rumored to be in the running are New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Dan Reicher, Google.org's director of climate change and energy initiatives. There is also talk about the possible appointment of a "climate czar" or "energy czar." (For this role, former Vice President Al Gore's name is being mentioned repeatedly.)