Executive Summary #1413es
February 27, 2001
Many in Washington and the public administration academic community assert that the President of the United States relies on far too many political appointees to manage government agencies. Charging, for example, that such appointments are made more to reward supporters than to improve the federal government, critics have begun to call on President George W. Bush to appoint fewer people to run the executive branch. However, as a review of history and survey research shows, and as interviews with career and political government executives suggest, such proposals are based on misconceptions about how political appointees and career civil servants work in government.
The President makes roughly 3,000 political appointments, far more than do the leaders of most other democracies. His appointees serve at his pleasure and generally recognize that their appointments are not long-term. Career bureaucrats in the federal government, by comparison, usually have tenure and serve for long periods. Accordingly, while political appointees will generally represent the interests and agenda of the President and orient their activities toward changing government to reflect that agenda, the roughly 1.7 million career federal bureaucrats are more likely to support the status quo.
Misconception #1: The number of political appointees has grown because of a lack of faith in the bureaucracy's abilities. In fact, history shows that the number of political appointees increases as agency missions become more controversial. Noncontroversial agencies are run mainly by career government executives; but for obvious reasons, the President must put his own stamp on more politically controversial agencies, and he needs larger numbers of political appointees to do so.
Misconception #2: There is no reason for the number of political appointees to grow as the career civil service shrinks. Political appointees account for less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the total civil service. They join government largely to do political work, such as negotiating with interest groups and congressional staffs and dealing with the media. When agency missions become more controversial, this work grows exponentially, overwhelming the capacity of the career staff. This was the case from the 1960s to the early 1990s, when the number of presidential political appointees roughly doubled while the size of congressional staffs and interest groups more than tripled.
Misconception #3: Political appointees are less competent than career executives. In fact, most political appointees have substantial experience and educational credentials, and stay in their jobs long enough to make a difference.
Misconception #4: Political appointees add little value to the bureaucracy. Surveys of federal executives suggest instead that most appointees work hard, are reasonably competent, and spend much of their time working with Congress, interest groups, the White House, and the media--effectively handling the high-risk political work that career officials eagerly avoid.
Misconception #5: If tenure protection were removed from the executive branch, Presidents would replace large numbers of career civil servants with political appointees, with disastrous results. Critics presume that, without strict controls on the numbers of political appointees, the President would thoroughly politicize the bureaucracy and replace large numbers of career civil servants with his supporters, thus retarding effective government service. The reality is that elected politicians lack the incentives and capacity to conduct a massive restructuring of the civil service. Even during the heyday of the spoils system in the 19th century, Presidents replaced surprisingly few career bureaucrats, realizing that doing so would weaken government performance and endanger their reelection.
Misconception #6: Tenured bureaucracies are representative. Many critics presume that, whereas political appointees represent the party in power, career bureaucrats represent the American people. In fact, bureaucrats are more supportive of their agency missions than is the public at large. There is nothing wrong with government employees believing in and supporting their agency missions. At the same time, political appointees play a vital role in providing an outside perspective to ensure that normal agency loyalty does not degenerate into institutional "groupthink." It is no surprise that the American federal bureaucracy, with its relatively large numbers of political appointees, seems more representative and efficient than its European counterparts, which have very few political appointees.
Misconception #7: The merit system works, or at least can be made to work, better than the alternatives. There is a pernicious misconception that the political personnel system is substantially less effective than the career personnel "merit" system. But as both career and political executives in the Clinton Administration observed, the traditional merit system was ineffective at hiring and compensating competent officials and separating the incompetent from service. Political appointees who do not measure up can be separated with relative ease.
Maximizing Executive Branch
The executive branch of government is where the rubber of policy hits the road of implementation. Political appointees are vital for ensuring that the President's agenda is implemented. President Bush would do well to ignore the calls to slash the numbers of political appointees. Instead, he should select political appointees of competence and distinction who share his vision of governing and strive to mold those appointees into a team, as Presidents Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower did. He should also empower a bipartisan commission to study alternatives to the conventional civil service "merit" system and submit a proposal to Congress no later than the middle of his first term.
Robert Maranto, Ph.D., teaches political science at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. A former professor at the Federal Executive Institute, he also has co-edited a forthcoming book, Radical Reform of the Civil Service.