Political Appointees and Political Executives
KeywordsCareer Official Political Official Parliamentary System Electoral Democracy Political Appointee
are found in all democracies, though their numbers, roles, and expertise vary widely across time, across nations, and across subnational units like American states. The term political executives includes high-level political appointees but also may refer to top elected leaders of the executive in separation of powers governance systems like the USA, presidents, governors, and mayors. In parliamentary systems, political executives are elected officials with direct administrative responsibilities, at the national level prime ministers and cabinet ministers who typically work directly with executive level career bureaucrats (Aberbach et al. 1981; Savoie 1994).
This brief essay will explore the selection of political appointees and their roles primarily in an American context and discuss evaluations of their impact on governance.
Political appointees are those public servants who are not permanent or semipermanent tenured officials but instead likely to come and go with the elected executive branch leaders, typically at relatively high, policy-making levels. A newly elected mayor, governor, or president will fill politically appointed positions primarily with political supporters through processes distinct from formal bureaucratic merit selection procedures. Political posts are often highly sought after and appointees usually undergo substantial vetting, so for the most part their formal credentials like educational attainment and work experience are sound, in sharp contrast to stereotypes about incompetent spoils system officials. Yet political selection is less regular and bureaucratized than for career civil servants, with considerable media attention and legislators and interest groups playing roles in what are often lengthy hiring processes. These differences in selection processes and criteria mean that political appointees may have broader experience than career executives but typically have less agency-related expertise, a matter we will return to below. Almost by definition political appointees typically serve for far shorter periods than career officials (Maranto 2005; Lewis 2008; Resh 2015).
In an American context, high-level political officials must typically earn confirmation by legislatures, the US Senate for top presidential appointees, state legislatures for gubernatorial appointees, and city councils for mayors. Legislatures often delay confirmations to extract policy or appointment concessions from executives and may use confirmation hearings to message desired policy outcomes. For these reasons and due to ever more detailed reporting rules for prospective appointees (meant to encourage openness and integrity), in the US government the period between designation and confirmation has risen steadily over time. In part for this reason, we have now seen increased use of “holdovers,” political appointees from one administration who serve in the following administration, typically in relatively nonpartisan policy areas or where an incoming president supports the policies of his or her predecessor. For example, President Obama kept on Bush second term Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who continued to draw down US forces in Iraq and augment those in Afghanistan (Mackenzie and Shogan 1996; Maranto 1997, 2005; Lewis 2008).
In the modern American presidency, appointees are typically chosen for their ideological and/or personal commitment to the elected president and his or her program, their expertise in a given policy area, their managerial competence, their ethics, and their representation of various constituencies. While representation was originally primarily geographic, since the late twentieth-century religion, race, gender, and more recently sexual orientation have served as the primary representative criteria. These appointment criteria shift over time depending on contemporary political cleavages. One notable exception is political party. Presidents and other elected executives select political appointees overwhelmingly from their party. Exceptions often occur in essentially one party states or cities, where newly elected executives from the minority party may need to reach beyond their party to find sufficient expertise, and to woo additional supporters. In the nineteenth-century political appointments were to a significant degree used to hold political parties together, to reward friends, and to raise money for the parties, since appointed officials were often expected to contribute “assessments,” shares of salary to the political party or individual sponsor who arranged the appointment. Indeed elections were largely funded through such “spoils systems,” so-called since election victors could collect the “spoils” of office. Save for a few cases such as certain ambassadorships, such practices have largely disappeared in the US government and are uncommon in American state governments. Still, such individualistic and arguably corrupt uses of patronage still occur in cities with weak media scrutiny and non-moralistic political cultures, as well as in other nations. Accordingly some argue that the numbers of political appointees should be strictly limited in polities with insufficient media scrutiny and political competition, or lacking moralistic political culture. Individualistic political culture, most notably, does not censure politicians for corruption, so in such polities increased use of political appointment would likely increase corruption, enabling politicians to essentially sell public posts for party or private gain (Maranto 2005; Maranto and Johnson 2006). Notably, while other forms of corruption are thought to have declined in America, “pinstripe patronage” (so named since stereotypically powerful officials weir pinstripe suits), use of government contracts to award political supporters, is thought to have increased, and is generally a legal practice (Freedman 1994).
The development of political appointments allowed electoral democracy and expert bureaucracies to coexist. Bureaucracies are relatively stable, hierarchical, expert organizations staffed largely by tenured officials. Bureaucratic expertise permits government effectiveness. Government cannot protect the nation through defense agencies, provide currency with the US Mint, protect the environment via the Environmental Protection Agency, or indeed do much of anything without specialized, expert bureaucracies with the organizational knowledge and capacity to accomplish particular tasks. At the same time by its very nature bureaucracy may undermine electoral democracy since career bureaucrats typically understand policies better than the elected officials who (at least formally) serve as their masters: the information asymmetry empowers career bureaucrats at the expense of temporary political leaders. Bureaucracies usually seek to increase agency budgets and power in manners which may not accord with the goals of the voters and the elected officials they select. In effect, the expertise of bureaucracy may undermine the political responsiveness of democracy. The doctrine of a politics-administration dichotomy dividing policy-making (political) work from bureaucratic (administrative) work is meant to facilitate both bureaucracy and democracy (Kaufman 1956; Niskanen 1971). While often critiqued by analysts, surveys of career and political executives suggest that this concept still holds considerable power among those serving within government agencies (Maranto 2005).
In part, political appointees lessen the information asymmetries faced by elected executives, serving as representatives of the elected administration to the permanent bureaucracy, both presenting expert views to elected executives and pushing career bureaucrats to develop and implement policies preferred by the political administration. Further, given the high expectations faced by American presidents (and other elected executives), increasing the numbers and roles of political appointees are among the few means of enhancing their powers solely under presidential control (Moe 1985). Not surprisingly given the expectations faced by political leaders as well as increased skepticism toward permanent bureaucracies, the numbers of appointees have grown over time in the USA but also in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and elsewhere (Savoie 1994; Dunn 1997; Lewis 2008).
Supporters of political appointments point out that in the US government, the numbers of appointees have grown less than the numbers of congressional staffers, reporters, and interest group employees, all of whom political appointees must interact with on behalf of the bureaucracy and the political administration. Washington politics is a growth industry, and appointees are actually a lagging sector within that industry; thus Maranto (2005) argues that much of the growth in political appointments reflects increased political work, more bargaining with a greater array of political actors. Such work may entail risks (such as bad publicity) which career officials feel reluctant to take. Further, appointees can also play management roles, turning around low-performing agencies, bringing outsider perspectives and expertise and facilitating cooperation across organizational boundaries. Their very temporary status and outsider perspective empowers appointees to take such controversial roles in the bureaucracy. Maranto argues that in part due to its relatively large numbers of political appointees who act as external change agents, American public bureaucracy at national and subnational levels is more innovative, representative, and effective than foreign counterparts. On the other hand, Suleiman (2003) argues that increased numbers of appointees have degraded the capacity and legitimacy of the bureaucracy in a range of nation-states, crowding out more effective career administrators from important roles.
Though political appointees clearly play important roles, they are typically less expert than career executives and also more likely loyal to the chief executive who appointed them, leading to fears of greater corruption. Generally, public administration academics champion the permanent bureaucracy and are thus skeptical of appointees, while political scientists, who value democratic accountability and executive (usually presidential) leadership to a greater degree, are more favorably disposed toward political appointees. This is reflected in each field’s research and commentary. Further, when an administration supports agency missions, as is the case of Republican presidential appointees in defense agencies, relations between career and political officials tend to feature consensus; on the other hand, when an administration and its appointees attempt to reduce or reorient organizations political-career conflict is almost inevitable, at least in the first years of an administration. Over time, relations tend to improve due to personnel and attitudinal changes on the part of both career and political officials (Maranto 1997, 2005; Resh 2015). Notably, some historical analyses suggest that Democratic and Republican administrations employ distinct managerial strategies, with the latter attempting to take over and reorient government agencies, while the former simply create new agencies to do the work old line bureaus are not trusted to handle (Maranto 2005).
The best recent empirical work on US political appointees is offered by David Lewis (2008). Lewis finds that presidents, at least, are rational. They rarely increase the numbers of political appointees in agencies where expertise is prized or which face risk of scandal. Such agencies are dominated by career officials at both subordinate and executive levels. At the same time, while admitting that political appointees play important roles, particularly in developing long-term strategy, Lewis finds strong empirical evidence that appointees have weaker performance since they have less agency-specific experience and less longevity in office. Lewis suggests that presidents and other political executives recruit more appointees from the career service (as is common in parliamentary systems), or from among those who served in previous administrations in similar posts. Generally, Lewis suggests that further politicization of American government will have diminishing and even negative returns regarding representation, efficiency, and accountability.
Clearly, we need more research on this and related matters, for political appointees in government, and the challenges thereto, will not soon disappear either in the US government, American subnational governments, or elsewhere across the globe.
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