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The Perils of Political Appointees as Agency Heads

- December 5, 2007

Do government agencies perform better when they’re headed by career executives or by political appointees? This age-old debate was given new life in the wake of the federal government’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina — especially that of FEMA, the lead agency for emergency responding. FEMA was widely seen as being overloaded with political appointees, and the FEMA director, Michael D. Brown, became a lightning rod for criticism; Brown, it turned out, had joined FEMA after being forced to resign as the Judges and Stewards Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association, hardly a background that would have seemed to qualify him to head the federal government’s top emergency responder.

The generic issue of political appointees v. careerists revolves around two very different schools of thought. In one, career bureaucrats are regarded as drones who couldn’t make it, or were reluctant even to try, in the private sector, and as culls who are left over after their more upwardly-mobile colleagues have departed for greener pastures. As seen from that perspective, appointees from outside the civil service system bring much-needed energy, innovativeness, and responsiveness to the top levels of government agencies. Appointees may also enjoy other advantages over careerists as high-level managers, drawing on generalist experience rather than narrow expertise and capitalizing on relationships with their political superiors.

However, career government executives have advantages of their own. In a word, they’re less likely to be political “hacks.” Having worked their way up through the chairs of an agency, they’re more likely to possess subject area expertise, an intimate working knowledge of the agency itself, and management skills that are directly applicable in a public sector settring.

In “Testing Pendleton’s Promise: Do Political Appointees Make Worse Bureaucrats?” (gated), published in the November 2007 issue of the Journal of Politics, David Lewis puts these competing perspectives to the test. Analyzing the Bush administration’s Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) scores (a numerical performance measure for federal programs), Lewis finds that programs administered by careerists get higher scores than those run by political appointees. The more pertinent experience and longer tenure of the careerists give them a leg up as managers. Importantly, these advantages are not offset by the political appointees’ higher educaiton levels, more extensive private or not-for-profit management experience, and more varied work experience — none of which correlate with agency performance. Lewis’s conclusion? “Reducing the number of appointees or increased sensitivity to appointee selection based upon certain background characteristics could improve federal bureau management” — a point with which the victims of Katrina would certainly concur.