The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump wanted to slash the federal government. But federal agencies are doing just fine.

Despite criticism of federal agencies, civil servants and private-sector managers and executives are about as likely to feel they can do their jobs well, our research finds

A worker arrives at the Washington Passport Agency in D.C. last year. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on current challenges facing the federal bureaucracy from “Rethinking Our Democracy.” A joint initiative by the Center for Effective Government (@UChicagoCEG) at the University of Chicago and Protect Democracy (@protctdemocracy), “Rethinking our Democracy” produces written series on key areas of institutional and democratic reform. All other articles can be found here.

Many people worried that the Trump presidency had undermined the administrative state — the agencies, people and policies that make up the executive branch. Their fears were motivated by the president’s disdain for the administrative state. Donald Trump labeled government scientists, generals and prosecutors variously as part of the “swamp” or the “deep state,” while his early-administration adviser, Stephen K. Bannon declared that one of the administration’s three primary goals was the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

So did the administrative state fall into disrepair under Trump’s watch? The surprising answer is: less than many expected. My research shows that the administrative state is in relatively good shape, according to the people who make it work. Indeed, it seems to be about as effective or more effective than private-sector firms across many areas. Specific agencies have problems, and some crosscutting issues endure, but the overall administrative state is doing … well.

Civil servants are the last defense against a lawless president. It’s no wonder Trump didn’t trust them.

We considered the administrative state against the benchmark of the private sector

In the fall of 2020, I cooperated with colleagues at Princeton and Georgetown universities and the Partnership for Public Service to conduct a nonpartisan assessment of the health of the departments and agencies of government at the end of the Trump administration. We wanted to benchmark their performance against comparable private-sector organizations. To do this, we surveyed more than 1,500 appointed and career federal executives. We included questions that corporate survey firm Mercer Sirota regularly uses in surveys of comparable private-sector executives to provide the benchmark. (Mercer Sirota generously helped us by providing the questions and the marginals for C-suite executives in the United States.)

What we found, perhaps surprisingly, is that federal agencies are doing just as well or better than private-sector firms in many areas. The areas where federal agencies lag behind — evidence-based decision-making, long-term planning and dealing with poor performers — are related to long-standing structural problems in the personnel system that preceded the Trump administration and continue into the Biden administration.

Democratic presidents regulate. Republican presidents deregulate. Congress could stop the pendulum swing.

Federal employees believed they could do their jobs well

For example, federal executives were just as likely as private-sector employees to report having sufficient personnel and resources. Just over half in both sectors reported having enough people, and close to three-quarters reported having the right equipment to do their jobs properly. This may be good or bad in absolute terms, but relatively speaking, it suggests that government is doing about as well at this as comparable private-sector organizations.

Interestingly, there is very little difference between the sectors in encouraging innovation, facilitating trust or effective management. Fully two-thirds of respondents in both sectors report environments that support the development of new and innovative ideas. Between 55 percent and 60 percent report a climate of trust, and close to 60 percent report that their organizations are effectively managed and well run.

In some areas, the public sector has an advantage. Federal executives are more likely to report that promotions in their agency are based upon ability. This may reflect the strict U.S. civil service rules on merit promotion, which do not have a private-sector equivalent. While three-quarters of public and private-sector managers report that they would recommend their organization as a good place to work, the numbers are slightly higher for public-sector managers.

In other areas, the public sector does markedly worse. Fewer federal executives report that their organizations are making decisions based upon data, and fewer report engaging in long-term planning. There is a 10-plus point gap in responses between the two sectors. Federal executives also report significantly less effectiveness dealing with poor performers. Although few managers in either sector report success in dealing with poor performers, there is a 20-plus point gap.

The administrative state is … not doing badly at all

Critics often charge that government agencies are less competitive and effective than the private sector. However, our findings from 2020 suggest that federal agencies fare relatively well, even after the Trump administration.

The areas of weakness plausibly reflect long-standing structural issues rather than short-term attacks by Trump. Inconsistent agency leadership prevents many agencies from making meaningful progress solving long-term problems. Private-sector CEOs stay five to seven years on average and know their long-term success depends on evidence-based decision-making and long-term planning. Appointed leaders and their temporary stand-ins stay for much shorter periods and have less incentive to solve long-term problems or institute better processes for collecting, analyzing and using data. The federal personnel system makes it awkward to deal with poor performers, and regular turnover means senior agency leaders may be unfamiliar with the relevant rules and how to use them to best advantage.

For all of the concern about the Trump presidency and its effects on the administrative state, our data suggest that federal agencies are just as healthy as large private-sector organizations on many dimensions. Long-standing weaknesses in the way we select executives and structure the civil service, however, continue to plague the federal administration.

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David E. Lewis is the Rebecca Webb Wilson University Distinguished Professor at Vanderbilt University and author of “The Politics of Presidential Appointments” (Princeton University Press, 2008).

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