Who Are the Better Managers -- Political Appointees or Career Bureaucrats?

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, November 24, 2008

Every time the White House changes hands between the Democrats and the Republicans, the outgoing party quickly sees the virtues of staffing government departments with competent managers. The incoming party invariably seeks to reward loyal campaign operatives with political appointments.

Presidents from Thomas Jefferson onward have grappled with opposing forces during their transitions to power: One school of thought argues that lots of political appointees can sweep away bureaucratic cobwebs. The other suggests that appointees mostly get in the way of the career professionals who really know how to make government work.

The United States has a far larger number of political appointees in government than any other industrialized democracy. Growing evidence suggests that while presidents and political parties appoint partisans in the belief that loyalists will drive the president's agenda forward, appointees may actually damage the long-term interests of both presidents and their parties.

Exhibit A for the negative effect that too many political appointees can have on the vitality of presidents and their parties, several political scientists said, is the outgoing administration of George W. Bush.

"Loyalty and ideology were valued over expertise, and policy and management suffered as a result," said Donald Moynihan, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "Political appointees helped to handicap FEMA, which contributed to the dire response to Katrina. White House appointees tried to shape the judgments of the EPA on the causes of global warming. Political appointees pushed weak intelligence to make a case for the war on Iraq. They illegally politicized the selection of career positions in the Department of Justice. Inexperienced but politically connected appointees in the Coalition Provisional Authority failed to manage the rebuilding of Iraq."

In an unusual new analysis, another political scientist compared the Bush administration's own evaluations of more than 600 government programs with the backgrounds of the 242 managers who ran those programs. David E. Lewis, who is now at Vanderbilt University, found that three-quarters of the managers administering the programs were political appointees while a quarter were career civil servants.

The political appointees were better educated, on average, than the civil staff. Many had stellar records in the private sector or on the campaign trail. Side by side, the political appointees just looked like a much smarter bunch than the careerists.

When it came to performance, however, the bureaucrats whipped the politicals: Programs administered by civil servants were significantly more likely to display better strategic planning, program design, financial oversight -- and results. These findings, remember, were based on the Bush administration's own evaluation system -- the Program Assessment Rating Tool, administered by the Office of Management and Budget.

Lewis and Moynihan said presidents often forget that while political appointees may be whip-smart operatives, it is the career civil staffers who hold institutional knowledge about agencies -- and that the bureaucrats tend to stick around longer than the appointees. For all the hatred that political candidates aim at the Washington bureaucracy during campaigns, political interference rather than bureaucratic inertia appears to be the central driver of governmental incompetence.

There were 1,778 political appointees in 1960 and nearly double that number in 2004, not counting part-time, advisory and White House positions. The federal government grew dramatically in that period, too, but the number of political appointees grew nearly twice as fast, said Lewis, author of the book "The Politics of Presidential Appointments."

Lewis said President-elect Barack Obama would do well to reduce the number of political appointees by as much as a quarter, and to appoint career civil servants to positions typically given to political appointees.

Not everyone agrees that the United States has too many political appointees: Robert Maranto at the University of Arkansas argued that political appointees have poorer track records than bureaucrats because presidents may preferentially give them the toughest assignments. Moreover, Maranto said, amid rising political partisanship, presidents need to stock departments with people who understand politics and the increased importance of interaction with Congress, lobbyists and the media. If a president placed more civil servants in slots now occupied by politicals, he argued, this could expose bureaucrats to the kind of controversies that can jeopardize careers.

Lewis, however, said his analysis controlled for a number of confounding factors, including the difficulty of administering different programs. He said civil servants outperformed political appointees even when the analysis was restricted to comparably difficult programs.

There is a happy balance between political control and the civil service corps, the political scientist added: If presidents feel they have to build separate bureaucracies to duplicate agency functions, it probably means the bureaucrats are out of control. On the other hand, if government departments are having a difficult time recruiting and retaining high-quality people, it probably means that departments are suffering from excessive political interference.

Jim Pfiffner, a political scientist at George Mason University, went even further than Lewis and suggested the number of political appointees be slashed by a third -- but acknowledged this was unlikely to happen.

"Presidents want patronage and think it will help them control the government," he said. "But the increasing number of layers of political appointees attenuates rather than increases control from the top."

The message could not be clearer for all those Obama-campaign-operatives-turned-political-appointment- hunters: If they really want to know what they can do for their country, they shouldn't be asking their president what he can do for them.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company