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Needed: More Bureaucrats

By Matthew Yglesias on March 11, 2009 at 12:27 pm

"Needed: More Bureaucrats"

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Alyssa Rosenberg makes an excellent point about the missing Treasury Department subcabinet officials:

It’s hard to argue that it’s in any way a good thing that Obama hasn’t filled a lot of key posts at Treasury. But that kind of misses the point. Obama shouldn’t have to appoint that many people in the first place. There are far too many positions that the president has to fill personally that could be easily and competently done by career employees. Of course the president needs people who can implement his agenda and set policy. That’s what department heads and a layer of political appointees immediately below him or her are for. But agencies and departments would be vastly better served by having high-ranking career employees bringing their institutional memory and experience to high-level positions in departments and ensuring that they can continue to function no matter how far along the president is in his vetting and appointments process.

Americans tend to assume that however we happen to do things is just the way things need to be done. But in reality, compared to other democracies we’re an extreme outlier in terms of how “deep” into the org charts of our agencies political appointees go. If you don’t like to think about foreigners, one way of thinking about how to build effective public sector institutions is always to look at the United States military where, unlike on the civilian side, political consensus has generally existed that effective institutions are important. You’ll see that while the president has discretion about which senior officers go where and do what, he doesn’t get to just pull new three- and four-star flag officers out of the ether (back in the day, things didn’t work that way, and during the Civil War there were plenty of “political generals” who did worse than the professionals). And what’s more, though a new president could shake things up right away, the expectation is that he won’t and that commanders will generally stay in place and provide continuity. They’ll report to a new commander-in-chief, and eventually they rotate to new assignments or into retirement, but the general assumption is that you don’t start everything from scratch. In addition to the various direct, practical benefits of greater professionalism this also greatly enhances the prestige of the low- and mid-level officers. The way you get to be an extremely important military commander is to start out as the most junior possible kind of commissioned officer and work your way up.

One potential model for civilian agencies might be the State Department where there are a ton of offices that are technically political appointments but where strong norms and traditions suggests that you fill them with career civil servants. Christopher Hill, for example, is a career foreign service officer. As such, he served on the team that negotiated the Dayton Accords. Based on that, he was given a “political” appointment as Ambassador to Macedonia. In 2000, he became Ambassador to Poland and he stayed in office until 2004 across a Presidential transition. Then he became Ambassador to South Korea, and in 2005 he became Assistant Secretary for East Asia. Soon, he’ll be Ambassador to Iraq. In general in the State Department it’s considered normal for the Undersecretary for Political Affairs and almost of all the Assistant Secretaries who report to him, and the policy-relevant ambassadorships to be occupied by career people.

Of course it’s worth saying that Timothy Geithner is essentially a person along this model—a guy who was working in a civil service job who, starting in 1995, got tapped for a series of increasingly-important political appointments in the Treasury Department who then left at the end of the Clinton administration. If the Bush administration had been inclined to make more Geithner-esque appointments at Treasury—elevating senior civil servants to subcabinet posts—it might have been more feasible to have a smooth transition.

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