Politics

Here's an Idea for Trump: Hire the Most Competent People

Research shows career civil servants do better work than political appointees, and are just as loyal.

Fill it with the best.

Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When President-elect Donald Trump visited the White House last week, he was reportedly surprised to learn that he’ll need to replace nearly the entire staff. While Trump is said to have promised jobs to his small campaign team, research suggests that he should try a revolutionary approach to staffing his administration: replacing political appointees with civil servants.

Today, an incoming U.S. president must fill about 4,000 jobs -- double the number from the mid-20th century. While political appointments remain a tiny fraction of the federal workforce, America stands in marked contrast to nearly every other mature democracy. For example, an incoming British prime minister, German chancellor or French president would make about 100 to 200 appointments.

The conventional wisdom among political operatives is that presidents should place appointees in key positions because they’ll be more loyal than civil servants. But research suggests this isn’t true.

Scholars have warned for generations that wherever political appointees go, problems follow. Back in 1977, Harvard political scientist Hugh Heclo noted that appointees leave their jobs after an average of 18 months -- right around the time they’ve figured out how to do the work. Several decades later, researchers are saying the same thing. For example, in 2008, Vanderbilt political scientist David Lewis looked at the government’s internal evaluations and found that programs run by appointees got significantly lower ratings than those run by civil servants.

Other scholars have shown that too many appointees make government less effective. NYU’s Paul Light has found that increasing numbers of political appointees over the past several decades has led to the “thickening” of government. Presidents are increasingly removed from the front lines of policy development and implementation, so they don’t benefit from the advice of the more-experienced careerists. For Trump -- who has no previous governing experience and whose campaign team has been widely viewed as amateurish -- this expertise will be especially critical. Light also says the boom in appointees has diffused accountability. With so many people now involved in every decision, no one person can be held responsible for anything.

All of this has led Texas A&M political scientist George C. Edwards to question whether presidents face a trade-off between competence and loyalty. According to this theory, if appointees make government less competent, presidents must choose them because they’re more loyal.

However, research suggests this is false. In my interviews with civil servants and political appointees who worked as Treasury spokespeople during the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, I found that civil servants were no more likely than appointees to leak unflattering information to the press.

Similarly, when Bryn Mawr political economist Marissa Martino Golden interviewed civil servants in four agencies that President Reagan tried to alter dramatically, she found that the professional norms of the civil service prevented them from sabotaging his initiatives, even though they often disapproved of them. As one bureaucrat told her, “Of course there will be changes around here -- there’s been an election, and nobody elected me.”

The perception that appointees are more loyal to the president likely works to their disadvantage. When I interviewed reporters who covered the Treasury Department, they were emphatic that they discount the information they receive from political appointees -- but not from civil servants -- because they believe appointees are motivated mostly by the desire to advance the president’s political interests.

Of course, this still leaves the possibility that while civil servants will be faithful to the president, they won’t pursue his preferred policies with the same zeal as appointees. But this might not be such a bad thing, either. As political scientist Andrew Rudalevige has argued, the biggest crises that plague presidents -- think Iran-Contra and Watergate -- tend to result from too much loyalty, not too little.

The proliferation of appointees over the past few decades suggests that presidents don’t know they aren’t as competent as civil servants -- and that civil servants are also pretty loyal. Our recent presidents are apparently the only ones who don’t see this. Although many new democracies have copied elements of the U.S. political system, not one has adopted this practice, Colby College government professor G. Calvin Mackenzie recently told the Senate. “Even those untutored in democracy,” he said, “know a lemon when they see one.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net

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