To the exclusion of any executive competence or managerial skills, voters have come to choose presidents as if they were ideological leader in chief or vision bearer in chief. That’s a mistake, because the job of president is actually executing the laws and running the executive branch. It’s about hiring good people, setting priorities and modeling behavior.
Presidents frankly make the same mistake in hiring Cabinet secretaries to run massive bureaucracies. They often hire ideological soulmates, not experienced managers. The result, unsurprisingly, is often scandal, chaos, confusion and inertia.
It’s therefore odd that we never seem to ask questions about some of those most critical aspects of the job for which presidential candidates are auditioning. Imagine interviewing CEO candidates and never bothering to ask what the candidate has run, how they motivate others or what their approach to delegation and hiring might be.
Max Stier, who heads the Partnership for Public Service, which tracks appointments, surveys and grades departments on their employee practices, and makes reform recommendations, says the time to ask such questions is in the presidential candidate debates. He tells me, “Our nation faces serious national security challenges from Russian and China, danger from rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran, and the threat of terrorism at home and around the world. Yet the position of secretary of defense has been vacant for months, and other key federal positions, such as the secretary and deputy secretary of homeland security and the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, are also being filled by acting officials on a temporary basis or not filled at all, either because the president has not nominated anyone or because the Senate has not confirmed the president’s choice.”
He suggests we start asking candidates: “Do such vacancies matter? If so, what will you do as president to ensure that you have your full team of leaders in place in the early days of your administration and throughout your administration?”
Moreover, given the extraordinary use and abuse of “acting” titles, we should be asking candidates: Do you pledge not to appoint acting secretaries who have not previously been confirmed by the Senate for some position?
Stier also notes, “Some of President Trump’s first picks for Cabinet jobs resigned or were asked to resign under an ethical cloud. Others have been labeled unqualified for their positions, and the turnover — 15 Cabinet departures in 2½ years — is double the rate of Presidents [Bill] Clinton, [George W.] Bush and [Barack] Obama.” That leads me to think about a host of questions: What are the qualifications the candidates would insist upon? Do they pledge not to give ambassadorships, for example, to campaign donors?
It would also be journalistic malpractice not to ask about government shutdowns. Stier tells me, “Last winter, airport screeners, air traffic controllers, the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, FBI agents and thousands of other federal employees worked for 35 days without pay due to the budget stalemate that led to the partial government shutdown.” He wants to know, “Do you believe that any federal employee should be forced to work without pay, and what do you propose to prevent this from happening again?” I’d also ask the same about the persistent debt-ceiling crises: How can we avoid these exercises in brinkmanship?
Finally, Stier observes, “One of the key functions of our president is leading the United States government, which includes 2 million career civil servants. Shockingly, only around 6 percent of that workforce is under the age of 30. In the area of IT, there are five times as many people over the age of 60 as under the age of 30.” In the past candidates have talked about shrinking the workforce, but what about upgrading it? Do candidates consider this a priority? What would they do to recover from the exodus of skilled career professionals who have left in disgust during Donald Trump’s presidency?
These aren’t sexy topics, nor are they likely to lead to stand-offs between contenders. They are, however, serious considerations — that is, if we want a competent chief executive who can accomplish goals and tamp down on corruption, inefficiency and ineffectiveness.