In Praise of Civil Servants

Posted on



People are exceptionally resistant to the idea of institutional reform, so I’m not surprised that it’s conventional wisdom in the United States that imitating Europe and relying more on civil servants and less on political appointees would be a bad idea even though it’s also conventional wisdom in the United States that European states are better-administered than the US government. But the arguments in favor of our approach seem very uncompelling to me. Here, for example, is political scientist Jonathan Bernstein:

Yglesias, true to his Europhile heart, believes that the real solution is to convert a lot of what are currently political appointees into civil servants. I disagree. I think the American system of a relatively weak bureaucracy that is responsive to both the president and Congress is an excellent democratic institution, especially fitting for such a large and diverse nation. It’s a really good thing that a Senator from the Dakotas, or from Georgia, or from Oregon, can find ways to get the attention of government agencies for particular, perhaps narrow, needs of her constituency. The confirmation process (along with oversight hearings, and the budget process) is a useful part of that.

The United States already has an institutional adaptation to its large size—we’re much more decentralized than the UK or France or even Germany. What’s more, the legislative process already massively overweights the interests of low-population states—doubling down on that overweighting by making it easy for senators to meddle in the administrative process doesn’t sound compelling to me. What’s more, I never hear anyone arguing for the extension of the American model to the military. Over there, we have a much more European-style approach. The political authorities have discretion in terms of which generals are given which jobs, but the assumption is that all the senior managerial functions will be performed by career professionals. We had a lot of “political generals” in the Civil War era and I’ve never heard anyone try to seriously argue that that was a more effective system.

I think the real rationale for the American system is provided by Barry Goldwater, patron saint of the modern conservative movement, who explained “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size.” The conservative movement has a lot of power in the United States of America and it generally prefers the government to be administered poorly, since that bolsters the case against government. An exception to this is the military, which conservatives do want to see administered well. Consequently, in the United States we rely heavily on professionals in military jobs but not in civilian ones.

Which is all a long-winded way of once again quoting Shankar Vendantam’s writeup of the available research on this issue:

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.

It’s worth emphasizing that there’s a broad middle ground we could aim for—just slightly paring back on political appointments to test the waters rather than leaping to a whole new system.