Scaling Back Appointees
Shankar Vedantam notes that in the executive branch, there are a lot of political appointees staffing jobs that really ought to be manned through the normal civil service process.
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.
This is an idea that was actually inculcated in me at an early age when I read Robert Heinlein’s The Star Beast. In the book, although the nominal protagonist of the story is the teenage boy at the center of it, the real hero was Henry Kiku, the career civil servant who managed to save the day despite the incompetent political appointees above him. But really, it makes sense when you think about it. Institutional knowledge is a valuable thing, and being able to navigate the current of any office is a skill that’s hard to learn on the fly.
(link via Matthew Yglesias)