Friday, September 23, 2005

Bureaucrats Vindicated?

The Washington Post Federal Page reports on some research here: "It turns out that the career managers, on average, do a better job of running federal agencies than the political appointees do. So says a 41-page study by political scientist David E. Lewis of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs."

It compares OMB's ratings of programs run by career bureaucrats versus those run by political appointees and finds the former do better. (Trigger the fireworks, let's celebrate.)

However, as an ever-cautious bureaucrat, some skepticism is in order--Dr. Lewis may be comparing apples and oranges. For example, in USDA circa 1970, the Soil Conservation Service was run by careerists, Farmers Home administration was run by politicos. But the programs were different--SCS was more "scientific" and less controversial than the loan-making functions of FmHA. I'd guess that there's a high correlation between "careerist" managers and "scientific" (i.e., not politically controversial) programs. That raises the issue of whether it's easier in some sense to run a program where the outcomes are more knowable and can be judged by clearer criteria. The question answers itself.

Political appointees run agencies that the public as a whole does not trust. The decline of trust in government over the past 40 years has been paralleled by an increase in the number of politically led agencies.

So while the work of Dr. Lewis is welcome, I'm going to save my fireworks.


  1. Hear, hear! I suspect also that any rating scheme that attempts to quantify the performance of a federal agency probably has a margin of error of much more than 5%. However, I suspect that careerists would perform better at technical agencies like Agriculture or Social Security, whereas political appointees would do best at jobs that have to balance constituencies like the EPA or Energy. The ideal head of an agency has some years working as a Fed, in my view.
    I don't see a lot of controversy in this, other than it seems to be a criticism of Bush, whereas the reality is every President has a bunch of hack appointees in thier mix.

  2. There was a followup article today in either the Post or Times--the writer noted that the Reps stuck their pols in HUD and the Dems in SBA or Commerce.

    Based on my limited experience, an ebb and flow of semi-political/career appointments may work okay. ASCS had GS employees who were politically identified; they'd move up the ladder when their party was in, then either move to the private sector or to a "turkey" farm when their party was out.