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Arnold School of Public Health

Health promotion, education, and behavior researchers and alumna examine how government officials behave during presidential transitions

October 27, 2020 | Erin Bluvas,

Investigating the sustainability of food and nutrition security policies during presidential transitions is something that Jessica Escobar-Alegría  has pursued since she enrolled in the Arnold School’s Ph.D. in Public Health, Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB) program nearly a decade ago. Four years after her 2016 graduation, she is still collaborating with HPEB mentors Edward Frongillo and Christine Blake to better understand the nature and effects of these types of transitions.

The trio completed a study on the sustainability of food and nutrition security policy during presidential transitions in Guatemala. One of their papers, published this month in Current Developments in Nutrition, focused on the way government officials behave during these times of change – gaining insights that can be applied to presidential transitions in any country, including the United States as we enter the final months of an election year.

The authors identify two types of behaviors that government officials engage in when they perceive that a president’s tenure is coming to an end – whether because of no possibility of re-election (i.e., due to term limits) or because they expect that the president will lose an upcoming election. Terminal logic behavior often coincides with the end-of-tenure scenario and is characterized by some governmental officials focusing on far-future rewards (e.g., preserving legacy) rather than on the day-to-day tasks of their job assignments. The second behavior, strategic defection, occurs when some government authorities perceive that the outgoing president is losing power – disassociating from the outgoing government once it is seen as powerless with the interest of fitting in within the new administration.

Though understudied, the consequences of these behaviors have far-reaching implications, particularly for long-term policies. In the current study, the researchers conducted interviews and analyzed news articles during two political transitions in Guatemala. They found evidence of terminal logic behavior and strategic defection at all levels of the government, affecting the sustainability of the country’s food and nutrition security policies through implementation slowdown, dysfunctional collaboration, inefficient use of resources, benefits not reaching targeted groups, and loss of momentum. The study also revealed the critical roles that key governmental personnel, civil society groups, and international organizations play in adopting tactics to maximize sustainability during transitions.

Defined as limited or uncertain access to safe and nutritious food, food insecurity has been on the rise since 2014. In 2019, it affected an estimated two billion people globally, with nearly 750 million (one in ten people in the world) experiencing severe food insecurity.

“Our findings are consistent with those of previous case studies that document officials’ turnover and instability around the time of national elections and its negative consequences for actions contributing to food and nutrition security,” Escobar-Alegría says. “This issue of policy sustainability being impaired by government end-of-tenure behaviors possibly occurs in other countries where, like in Guatemala, roles performed by governmental officials at all levels are critical for policy implementation and sustainability during transitions.”

Returning to the U.S. election at hand, the researchers see utility of their results for understanding events around the potential presidential transition or a continuation of the current administration.  “In the weeks before this presidential election, we have seen the effort to fill a Supreme Court vacancy as quickly as possible, a prominent example of terminal logic behavior, and more officials than previously criticizing or distancing themselves from the current administration because the incumbent might not be re-elected, a form of strategic defection, “ Frongillo says. “If a presidential transition does occur, then both types of these behaviors will intensify, with vigorous attempts to put new policies in place such as relaxing environmental protections and making more stringent limits on visas for foreign students, exchange visitors, and journalists as well as officials separating themselves to protect their future prospects.”  

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