Lessons from America: should the UK consider US-style government transitions?

If Joe Biden had won a general election in the UK rather than the US, he would have assumed office immediately and his administration would now be in its third month. But is such a swift transition of power a good thing? And is it effective from the point of view of the civil service? Geoffrey Lyons reports
Donald Trump's inauguration as US president PA

By Geoffrey Lyons

20 Jan 2021

America’s system of government has faced unprecedented pressure since the presidential election in November. First, the coronavirus pandemic encouraged a switch to voting by mail, which elongated the counting of votes. Then, the outgoing president Donald Trump used his social media megaphone to spread misinformation about the election, which culminated in rioters invading the US Capitol in an effort to stop the Biden victory being certified. This effort failed, but not before four people had died after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the halls of Congress.

This is not how transitions of power, an American political staple, are meant to go. The initial rationale for the gap from the presidential election on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November to swearing-in newly elected presidents on 20 January (members of Congress start slightly earlier, on 3 January) was to allow enough time for all votes to be tallied and for incoming presidents to move residencies -- no small feat in pre-industrial America. Technology has drastically reduced the time it takes to do both, which is partly why the 20 January start date, established in 1933, is actually a revision from the original inauguration day of 4 March.

The aim of a transition period is that it gives incoming administrations time to prepare for the monumental task at hand. Formally this means access to federal funds, government buildings, and, at the discretion of the sitting president, the highly classified President’s Daily Briefing (Trump delayed this approval, but it has now been given). The president-elect can also create dozens of “agency review teams,” comprised mostly of volunteers, to coordinate with civil servants and get a feel for each department. As the director of the White House Transition Project, Martha Joynt Kumar, told The Washington Post, “When a president and his team come in, they’re jumping on a moving train. The government operations don’t stop — they continue, and you want to know what’s ahead.”

This year’s riots have exposed the system’s downsides, but are there advantages to adopting a transition period? Government operations don’t stop in Whitehall either, and yet the UK has no such gap -- the incoming prime minister and his or her government must start work immediately. Would it be better if there was more time between the tallying of election results and the start of a new government? If so, how could that be implemented?

In some ways the American and British systems aren’t comparable. For example, the US doesn’t have a parliamentary government, but rather a formal separation of powers under its constitution (this is why American columnist George Will detested then-presidential candidate John McCain’s proposal in 2008 to replicate the UK’s prime minister’s questions for the presidency, writing that “Congress should remind a President McCain that the 16 blocks separating the Capitol from the White House nicely express the nation’s constitutional geography.”) The US also has a lengthier confirmation process for senior government appointments, which in the UK simply requires a phone call to Buckingham Palace.

Despite these structural differences, the American system still has the advantage of allowing for more preparation. “It gives time for people to be briefed,” says Peter Riddell, former director of the Institute for Government and Washington bureau chief at The Financial Times during the Reagan-Bush transition. “The disadvantage of the UK system is that it’s instantaneous.”

Preparation is important to Riddell, whose latest book 15 Minutes of Power: The Uncertain Life of British Ministers, details how surprisingly common it is for ministers to arrive on the job as unqualified as shows like Yes Minister and The Thick of It suggest. He spent much of his time at the IfG trying to solve this problem by hosting seminars for opposition politicians on the practicalities of running a private office and managing civil servants. “The qualities which serve well in opposition don’t always work in government,” he says. “What makes someone a good attack dog in the House of Commons isn’t necessarily someone you want running a department.”

Riddell says this problem is exacerbated the longer the opposition has been out of power, because then it’s less likely frontbenchers will have had any government experience. It’s a problem that’s avoided completely in the US system, he adds, referring to the fact that US department heads are drawn from a much wider talent pool and therefore tend to have more experience (for example, Robert Gates served as US secretary of defence for over five years, spanning Democrat and Republican administrations). 

Lack of experience isn’t the only reason why an incoming government can get off to a bad start, however. While Biden and his team could rest after their election victory, in the UK the victor must begin work utterly depleted from campaigning. Notwithstanding the mystique of Margaret Thatcher’s ability to function on four hours of sleep, most would agree that no matter how much the demands of one’s work may keep them from ever attaining the elusive eight hours, some rest is better than none. As Bernard Donoughue, former assistant to the Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan (who took regular naps) has said, “better well rested than well briefed.”

But even well rested and well briefed opposition leaders are still prone to be ill prepared, Riddell says, because no matter how much they may have thought about what they would do in power beforehand, they tend to shy away from any formal planning. “Invariably it’s true that they don’t want to tempt fate,” he says. “They’re afraid of measuring the curtains because if it leaked out that they were so presumptuous, voters would say ‘hold on, this is our decision, not yours’.” Incoming governments are therefore likely to begin their work having failed to devote sufficient thought to either their personnel or policy priorities.

There is, of course, a convention by which all these issues can be avoided. The ‘Douglas-Home Rules’ (so-called because the late prime minister turned a blind eye to Labour deputy leader George Brown meeting with Treasury officials about his party’s plans) allow opposition leaders to meet with senior civil servants up to 16 months before an election. But while this pre-election contact can in theory smooth a transfer of power, Riddell says it’s highly discretionary – that it’s up to the prime minister of the day whether to authorise the cabinet secretary to hold such meetings. In a 2010 IfG report co-authored with Catherine Haddon, Riddell argued that pre-election preparation is fundamentally constrained by two factors: the civil service’s duty to serve the government of the day and its uncertainty about opposition plans. This uncertainty, the report says, leads to civil servants often having to guess what opposition proposals mean, or work on the basis of either indirect contacts or manifesto pledges “intended as much for internal party or electoral consumption as a programme for government itself.”

Should any future governments wish to address these problems, the US is not the only model to emulate. In fact, the UK is unusual in its immediate transfer of power and can look to most developed democracies for inspiration. Australia, for example, goes into “caretaker mode” during a handover period whereby the existing cabinet, abiding by certain conventions, is maintained until a new government is formed – effectively an extension of the strictures that already apply to a UK government in the pre-election period. In Canada, the cabinet secretary has formal responsibilities around preparing for a transition, and there are a few days’ grace between when polls close and a new government assumes office (Riddell would like to see this grace period in the UK as well, to allow incoming government to switch from campaign mode to governing mode, and, if nothing else, “to get a good sleep”.) Even within the UK, local councils have much to offer for the openness with which opposition councillors and officers collaborate, and the amount of training that incoming councillors receive. Westminster could adopt any one or a combination of these measures to help bypass the pitfalls of immediate transfers of power.  

But the US certainly has something going for it. As the 78-year-old Biden takes the oath of office on the West Front of the US Capitol building, he’ll likely be more fresh-faced than any living prime minister was on his or her first day, despite being older than all of them (John Major, the oldest, is only now 77). His team will have practised what they’ll do in the first days and weeks in office, prepared for contingencies, built relationships with civil servants, and learned, at least in part, how to navigate the labyrinth of Washington bureaucracy. In normal times, these are nice features of a transition period – but during a global pandemic, they could be the difference between a botched recovery and one that saves lives and businesses. At a time when the challenges faced by governments are of ever-increasing importance and complexity, perhaps those in power on this side of the pond can learn a thing or two about how the US passes the baton.

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