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Do career bureaucrats outperform political appointees? You betcha

- December 4, 2008

Shankar Vedantam, in his Washington Post “Department of Human Behavior” column several days ago (November 24, 2008 — (here), cited several political scientists on the timely topic of the performance of appointed v. career managers of government programs. Featured prominently was research by political scientist David Lewis of Vanderbilt, the author of the recently published The PolItics of Presidential Appointments: Political Control and Bureaucratic Performance (Princeton University Press).

bq. 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.

bq. 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.

bq. 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.

The implication? Lewis and others, including Jim Pfiffner of George Mason University, think more government managers should be careerists rather than presidential appointees. Let’s not hold our breath waiting for that to happen.