Learning To Get Along

Book Addresses Gap Between Appointees and Bureaucrats

Posted July 11, 2005 at 2:43pm

In his new book, “Beyond a Government of Strangers: How Career Executives and Political Appointees Can Turn Conflict to Cooperation,” Villanova University political science professor Robert Maranto aims to alleviate some of the tension created by political appointees and career bureaucrats by helping them better understand each other.

“Within the public, administrative and academic communities and among government groups, there’s a strong presumption that political appointees are bad,” Maranto said in an interview. “That conventional wisdom is overly simplistic,” he argued, adding that “political employees have a very significant role in Washington today.”

Historically, this has not always been the case. “One hundred years ago we were talking about patronage. Political appointees were concentrated in field offices, places like the postal service. … The skills required, and the type of expertise required, was not murderously difficult to find. If you could show up, and read and write, you could do the work,” he said of previous political appointees.

Today, of course, the story is much different. “Most of the Bush Senate-confirmed appointees either had an M.D., a law degree or a Ph.D. Half had prior budgetary responsibility of over $1 million, half took lower salaries when they left the private sector.”

There are also far more people in the government now than there was a century ago. “Washington politics has been a growth industry since the 1960s. The number of [political action committees] and lobbyists has gone up by a factor of about 7 in the period. White House reporters have increased by a factor of five. Congressional staffs have roughly quintupled.”

So why is there so much conflict between career bureaucrats and political appointees? Part of the reason is the upheaval that comes with each new political appointment. As Maranto notes in the opening chapter of his book, these appointees are more numerous than in the past and have shorter stays in government. When they come and go, things can get shaken up.

“Every couple of years there will be a new agency director coming in and asking questions,” Maranto explained. “If your house is in order, it won’t be terrifying. If your house is not in order, it can be very, very difficult.”

As an example of organizations whose houses are not in order, Maranto pointed to two of the most important government agencies in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world: the FBI and the CIA.

“Look at the agencies that are in the most trouble, the FBI and the CIA. They have the fewest political appointees. If you had a bunch of political employees there to push change, they’ll get more done,” he said, adding that when the groups are faced with a problem they simply ask Congress for more money to solve it. The money comes, but nothing gets changed.

“High-level bureaucrats are bright, hard-working people,” he said. “It’s hard to get them to accept that they may need to change things. Unless you have that threat of political appointees coming in, it can be hard for organizations to change.”

Congressional staffs often have a difficult time dealing with government bureaucracies because the cultures are so different, Maranto said.

“Congressional staffs tend to work insane hours. This really came through in interviews. Political employees from the private sector often get along quite well with the career bureaucrats,” because both groups are used to working regular 9-to-5 shifts, he said.

“The ones that come from Congressional staffs tend to be very young and work insane hours. … A lot of times people from Congressional staffs are less comfortable because of the work loads.”

In addition to different work habits, Congressional staffs and bureaucrats also tend to have different mindsets. “Every Congressional staffer tends to have a much higher level of loyalty. Some would call it groupthink. Whereas the career bureaucrats know their guy isn’t going to be elected president, they’re a little older, have a little more perspective.”

Tension between Congress and federal bureaucracies will likely always exist. “Regular bureaucrats hate dealing with Congress. Part of it is that they speak a different language, have a different work culture.” Included in that different culture, Maranto said, is “having to tell Congress Members that the answer has to be no. That’s a tough thing to do. It’s hard to ask a career bureaucrat to take a political risk like that.”