Podcast: Frieda Arenos’ & Gemima Barlow’s Executive Transitions Work at NDI

Frieda Arenos and Gemima Barlow join host Peter Glover to discuss the work of the National Democratic Institute with regard to their Executive Transitions program. They share country-specific success stories as well as overarching lessons learned in the transition space and their relevance to rapid response anti-corruption. In particular, Frieda and Gemima reflect on the importance of time sensitivity during transitional periods.

Please check out highlights from the interview below and listen to the full episode here.

Peter Glover: How often is corruption an initial focus for a transitional government or a new executive?

Frieda Arenos: NDI doesn’t really lead with corruption as its focal point when engaging in this type of work. There are specific mechanisms, though, that are so critical to ensuring anti-corruption safeguards, building transparency, and ensuring a smooth process overall. So it’s almost embedded in the approach of this program. For example, you have asset tracking, institutional archival, national security and classified document protections, and training for those executive staff who are kind of utilizing or implementing such mechanisms to ensure anti-corruption good practices.

But I also want to highlight that leadership transitions present these moments of national vulnerability. Anytime you have a leadership shift, there’s a potential for a leadership vacuum, especially because the transition process itself is actually not often a top priority for transitioning leaders. They’ve won the election. They’re on this high, this excitement building on the momentum created from the election. But in that way, they’re not often focused on these checks and balances and important processes, especially in countries that don’t have formalized processes. And so corruption can actually take hold in those instances.


Peter Glover: Are there any overarching lessons learned from the Executive Transitions program? And are any of these lessons applicable to thinking about democratic transitions more generally and ways that support could be better during democratic transitions?

Frieda Arenos: No two transition experiences are exactly alike, and so I learn from every transition experience that I’ve been involved in. Transitions first and foremost are really a process of learning and understanding what makes sense for leaders and their teams in context in order to carry out that smooth process. So you have to look at the circumstances surrounding the election, in the region as a whole, [and] the history in the country of transitions. Have they had smooth transitions before? What made them successful and what challenges are evident right now in this moment that are preventing transition best practices to occur? What opportunities are there from the context at hand to really support us with the process?

For implementers, especially, a lesson learned is this is really about the political dynamics. Sometimes transitions are character-driven and you may have a situation where the country has had many successful and smooth transitions, but there are actors and players who don’t want to cooperate. This is difficult. So you have to be aware of those political dynamics playing out and address them. It’s also about building resources and expertise, and we’ve really found that peer to peer experience-sharing and connection is a point which offers this amazing development of skills and practice in the transition space.

But really, the transition process itself is also about learning from different experiences across the globe. The US is one example. Canada is one example. But there are examples from across the world that are imperative that we build on and adopt and utilize in developing those good practices. I just want to give a shout out to some of our partners in this space — the White House Transition Project, the Partnership for Public Service, Save Democracy Africa, IRI, Global Leadership Foundation, and many others who have also contributed a lot of learning and experience-sharing from across global contexts.

NDI recently built a website resource center that includes learning and experiences from across different countries and political systems to show that there are many different processes that work in context for leaders and their teams. And we’re working with CIPE now to build awareness on transparency, good practices, and anti-corruption good practices in transition legal frameworks. That experience-sharing from across the world is absolutely imperative to them.


Peter Glover: It seems like striking when the iron is hot is incredibly important. Can you talk a little bit about why time sensitivity matters in political transition?

Frieda Arenos: There is a short window between the election and when a leader assumes power. Sometimes with a snap election, there’s virtually no time to prepare. And the momentum surrounding an election is high — citizens have this expectation for change. If a new leader, especially a new leader, does not quickly build on that momentum and create a vision and communication platform that shows they will be working on those promises for reform, they lose that momentum. Civil society starts to get tired with the rhetoric. They start to get tired if they don’t see progress. So really time is crucial in building on that momentum created by the election.

Gemima Barlow: Peter, it goes back to what you said earlier. It helps to build trust. The more that you can show that there’s a process and where things are, the better the trust-building is.


Peter Glover: Can you talk about an instance perhaps where a lack of planning either delayed a lot of these processes, or perhaps where the presence of planning helped accelerate these processes?

Frieda Arenos: A lack of planning is one of the things that can make or break a successful transition process […] especially in the post-election period surrounding who is going to lead your staff. You need somebody who’s going to help lead that charge. […] Speaking from the perspective of the leader, I need somebody who’s going to help me carry out my vision and allow my vision to be carried out throughout the government through concrete government reform. I need a staff who I can trust and who can help me build out those plans. I also need good communications apparatus and planning, especially proactively for crises, for communications surrounding a crisis, for how resources and information will move across the government to ensure that coordination and consistent communication output. [It] all comes down to planning.

Knowing what’s possible through government reform also is a result of strategic planning in the post-election and early days of a new leadership tenure. You need to understand what’s already been done in government. What needs to be done? What challenges exist? What resource capacity in your national budget exists? What capacity in your legislature exists? Without having dedicated staff and an understanding of those government processes and what’s possible, you can’t actually assume leadership power quickly and effectively. So planning is really all of it.