In Praise of Bureacrats

One underappreciated aspect of the American system of government is that we have way more political appointees in the executive branch than is common in most democracies. Political appointees will go three or four levels deep into the org charts of agencies, and the top administrators are also staffed by a lot of political appointees rather than by career professionals. In the State Department, it’s customary to give a lot of the political positions (usually at the Assistant Secretary level) to career foreign service officers, but in some agencies there are politicals everywhere.

And as Shankar Vedantam explains in The Washington Post they do a way worse job than the bureaucrats do:

The United States has a far larger number of political appointees in government than any other industrialized democracy. Growing evidence suggests that while presidents and political parties appoint partisans in the belief that loyalists will drive the president’s agenda forward, appointees may actually damage the long-term interests of both presidents and their parties. […]

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 would be nice to see some efforts made to scale back the quantity of political appointees. My understanding is that the Department of Homeland Security, which was born under the horrific misrule of George W. Bush, has an especially large problem in this regard. That said, when thinking about this it’s important to recall that conservative administration generally don’t want the government to be administered effectively. It was not incompetence that led the Bush administration Justice Department to stop enforcing non-discrimination law, it was deliberate malice. Conservatives think it should be easier for businesses to get away with racial and gender discrimination, just as they stand foresquare behind efforts to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Similarly, labor law was enforced poorly under Bush by design not by accident. The administration went out of its way to prevent the EPA from doing it’s job. The examples are almost endless.


And of course this is part of the problem with having so many political appointees. But it’s also why they’re hard to get rid of. Career bureaucrats tend not to go work for an agency unless they believe in its mission. And to conservatives one of the main tasks of a president is to ensure that many rules go unenforced so that the conservative donor class can better trample the public interest. It’s easier to do that the more political appointees you have, and if an occasional Katrina happens, that’s a small price to pay.