Political Appointees and the Competence of Federal Program Management
John B. Gilmour
College of William & Mary
American Politics Research Volume 34 Number 1 January 2006 22-50 © 2006 Sage Publications 10.1177/1532673X04271905 http://apr.sagepub.com hosted at http://online.sagepub.com
In this article, we use the Bush administration’s management grades to analyze whether programs administered by senior executives are better managed than those administered by political appointees requiring Senate confirmation. We explain the administration’s management grading scheme and how it can be informative for evaluating comparative management quality. Weexplain why senior-executive-run programs should be better managed than appointee-run programs and test our claim with data on 234 federal programs. We find that political-appointee-run programs earn systematically lower grades in most management areas. We conclude that a systematic review of the proper role of political appointees in federal program management should be considered. Keywords:public administration; political appointees; Senior Executive Service (SES); government management; Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART); executive branch
he implementation of public policies is a complex process with numerous potential failures along the way from articulation of goals to the delivery of a product. Slippage between what politicians want and what administrative agencies actuallydeliver can be caused by a variety of factors, including resource constraints, political disagreements, difficulty observing outcomes, task size, and the complexity of joint action (e.g., Bardach, 1977; Pressman & Wildavsky, 1974; Tendler, 1997; Wilson, 1989). Management
Authors’ Note: The authors thank Steve Balla, Mike Cassidy, Shigeo Hirano, Greg Huber, and Nolan McCarty for helpfulcomments. We also thank the Office of Management and Budget for making their management grades publicly available. The errors that remain are our own.
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capacity of program administrators, or lack thereof, can also account for the failure of actual outputs of programs to match initial promise. Program managers can interfere with effectiveimplementation for multiple reasons. First, they may not share the goals of their political superiors and fail to carry out policies as intended. Second, they may be ineffective managers. Fear of bureaucratic sabotage has led presidents, at least since Nixon, to pursue an administrative presidency whereby they seek to control policy implementation through an appointment strategy (Moe, 1982, 1985; Nathan,1975, 1983). This has led both to an increasing number of managers and an increasing number of political appointees among managers in the executive branch (Light, 1995). Ironically, the approach to improving management by imposing political control also poses a threat to effective management because the individuals appointed to political positions in the bureaucracy may not be good managers.Public managers who understand exactly the policy outcomes politicians want will vary in their individual ability to translate these goals into reality. If appointees are less capable as managers than careerists, the appointments strategy may undermine effective management. This leads to an important question: Are political appointees as competent as bureaucratic careerists? This question has receivedmuch discussion among public administrators but little among political scientists. Yet because it is ultimately a question of the relationship between institutional arrangements and policy outputs, it is an important issue for political science. In 2003, the highly publicized Volcker Commission report recommended, among other things, that the executive branch be reformed to reduce the number of...