Noted With Interest

Who You Really Want Running a Federal Agency

Friday, September 23, 2005

Many career federal managers have always had a quiet disdain for their politically appointed counterparts. A new Princeton University study suggests they may be justified in that view.

The career guys make, well, careers of their time in federal service, building expertise in their agencies and rarely getting public recognition. The politicals, on the other hand, blow into an agency for a year or two, reinventing wheels and implementing "new paradigms," and then leave declaring the bureaucracy to be better than they found it.

It turns out that the career managers, on average, do a better job of running federal agencies than the political appointees do. So says a 41-page study by political scientist David E. Lewis of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Lewis used scores from the Program Assessment Rating Tool -- the Bush administration's yardstick for evaluating federal programs -- to gauge the performance of political vs. career managers. The 614 programs evaluated by the White House were administered by 245 bureau chiefs, of which about three-quarters were political appointees.

"[P]olitically appointed bureau chiefs get systematically lower management grades than bureau chiefs drawn from the civil service," Lewis wrote.

Out of a possible score of 100, programs run by political appointees earned grades five to six points lower, on average, than those run by career managers.

Political appointees tended to have higher education levels and more private-sector experience, but that did not translate into better performance, Lewis found. Careerists were more likely to be specialists who worked their way up in their agency, with more public-sector experience and longer tenures in their management jobs. Agencies run by politicals also had more turnover.

The findings "confirm the underlying logic for the creation of the merit system," Lewis wrote. They suggest that troubled bureaucracies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be better off with fewer political appointees, or with political managers who have previous FEMA experience and are willing to serve longer than most appointees do, he wrote.

"The persistent willingness of presidents to keep a large number of appointees even when this is bad for management suggests that presidents are willing to trade management competence in order to secure ideological consistency or loyalty and satisfy demands for patronage," Lewis wrote.

-- Christopher Lee

© 2005 The Washington Post Company