Preparing the National Security Council Staff

By Patricia Cogswell

View More Responses from Federal Transition Experts

During our Mission is Possible Transitions podcast, The Importance of Strong Leadership last fall, Anne Witkowsky and I discussed our National Security Council (NSC) experiences.  As we developed our #ImplementingChangethatLasts series, I spoke with other former National Security Council staff colleagues who echoed our experiences. New NSC staff, comprised of direct White House hires and detailees from various agencies, are often expected to assume their portfolios with little handoff from the prior office holder, onboarding instruction, or guidance for how to be most effective. 

The NSC staff has an important mission. The staff supporting the National Security and Homeland Security Advisors, and through them, the President, are responsible for driving the national security policymaking process.  They frame the issues in their respective areas of responsibility, shape the options and arguments, and drive the decision process across relevant national security agencies.  When a decision memo goes to the President, the NSC staff prepares it.  Once a decision is made, the NSC staff ensures that that decision is implemented.  

I found several advocates for a new approach, especially in light of the significant turnover at the NSC from the last Administration, as well as ongoing efforts to fill leadership positions filled in agencies.  NSC staff need to be well-equipped to efficiently lead shortly after arrival, given the critical, highly visible issues they are responsible for driving.

I asked my colleagues for their perspectives on what could be readily incorporated into an NSC staff member’s schedule; they recommended that incoming staff should:

  • Be provided with an orientation and guidelines outlining expectations, including roles of organizations in the Executive Office of the President, engaging agency leaders in order to obtain the best results, and how to prepare effective decision “packages.” Staff should regularly review, discuss, and help revise the orientation as needed.
  • Meet with individuals who previously served on the NSC staff, in a trusted environment, to benefit from the lessons learned by their predecessors. These conversations should bring in officials who have served as national security and homeland security advisors and deputies, as well as senior directors and directors.
  • Receive a transition hand-off from their predecessor, including access to documents, and meeting with key interlocutors to maintain continuity of relationships.
  • Engage in structured, scenario-based learning to allow staff to think through, in advance, challenges associated both with deliberate decision making and policymaking in a crisis.

NSC staff positions are some of the hardest jobs in the national security business.  Those who serve at the NSC often become leaders in government and elsewhere.  Providing this type of transition support would benefit the White House, the national security agencies, and the staff themselves as they both shape the policy of today and continue their careers as future leaders.

About the Experts

Back to top