Memos to National Leaders: Transition Prep, Political Appointees Confirmations and More

We are less than three weeks from the election. So the big question now, is what's next? What happens after the new president is elected? How should career feds handle the transition. The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) and the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) have tried to answer some of those questions. They've launched the Memos to National Leaders project to help inform incoming national leaders about policy and management challenges facing the Nation.  Dwight Ink penned a memo about administrative leaders. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that in order for the government to create real and lasting reforms they need the political leadership approved quickly.  "During the campaigns there is a lot of rhetoric about how the candidates would change and reform government, but they don't actually get a lot of real concret attention," said Ink. 

Political Appointees

"It's very difficult for an incoming president to move ahead with major initiatives when the political appointee process is held up. And that's a problem because the first few months is when the incoming president has the most political strength," said Ink, "the confirmation process is compounded because we have an increasing number of appointees that need Senate confirmation and a reduced number of career people who occupy policy positons."

Recommendations:

  1. Presidents should aim to reduce the number of Senate-confirmed positions in management positions and part-time, commission, and advisory posts. Management positions are ideally suited for experienced persons concerned with long term planning and the agency’s health.  Presidents could fill these posts with career members of the Senior Executive Service whose long experience in the federal government would be valuable but over whom the President still retains substantial control. Cuts in part-time, commission, and advisory posts (which often require Senate confirmation) would not directly help performance in the larger agencies but cutting such positions would make the personnel task easier for the PPO and reduce the burden on the Senate to let both parties focus on the nominees for the key policymaking positions.
  2. Efforts to cut appointees of all types should focus on the program or bureau level. The best empirical evidence suggests that career managers perform more effectively than political appointees at this level of management. David Lewis has compared PART scores (2004-08) of agencies headed by political appointees and career executives. He found that programs administered by career executives systematically performed better than those headed by political appointees. Placing career executives in program management roles will induce career executives to stay and build careers in the federal service without sacrificing political accountability.  Presidential appointees at the head of agencies and bureaus will continue to oversee the careerist managers of federal programs.
  3. Schedule C positions should be reduced. Schedule C positions are for persons serving in policy and supporting positions but usually in a staff role. Persons appointed in these positions have little formal authority, but can accrue substantial informal authority. Some of the difficulties in the past administration with appointees stemmed from personnel in Schedule C positions. Comparable positions to those filled by appointees in Schedule C positions are filled by careerists in different agencies with little apparent sacrifice in responsiveness.

Sour Relationship Between Career and Political Appointees

Over the past several decades, the expanding role of political appointees, combined with their increasing numbers, has led to an underutilization of the career services. No matter how sound the policies or how skillful the political skills of a President, success will depend heavily on how well career executives implement his or her initiatives. The level of performance of these career leaders will depend on the extent to which department and agency heads understand their value and provide an environment that utilizes their potential contributions. An effective partnership between political and career leaders from the beginning of each new administration will do much to determine the success or failure of the President’s agenda. The policy roles of the political appointees and operational roles of the career leaders need to be clarified. These two groups are interdependent. Therefore, they need to join in close cooperation without losing accountability for their roles. The ability of career leaders to perform at their potential will be enhanced by increasing their developmental opportunities and reducing the number of lower level political appointees.

Recommendations

  1. Presidential Commission. A bipartisan commission should be appointed to review political appointee practices that contribute heavily to improved agency operations such as those that energize the career service, and those practices that impact operations negatively. It should review their political role only as it impacts agency operations, such as whether the increased number of appointees is resulting in career leaders being replaced by political appointees with less experience and knowledge of government operations as this author asserts.  Steps to enhance working relationships between top political appointees and SES leaders should be included.
  2. Limit Political Appointments. A limit on the number of political appointees should be established by Congress, especially for Schedule C appointments. The Congressional limit on political appointments in the Senior Executive Service has little meaning if political appointees can be added through Schedule C appointments.
  3. Development Program. To ensure development of career personnel capable of handling key operational roles, OPM should expedite a program to provide development opportunities for qualified career personnel from entry through the SES. Each deputy to a program assistant secretary or bureau chief should be drawn from the SES.
  4. Mobility. The Partnership for Public Service has found that only 8% of SES executives have worked at more than one agency, and almost half have stayed in one position in their agencies. OMB and OPM should work together to facilitate greater mobility of senior executives among agencies. To ensure continuity, legislation is also recommended to mandate mobility opportunities for high performing personnel wishing to advance to top SES assignments, taking care to provide flexibility to adapt to agency needs and changing conditions.
For all the Memos to National Leaders, click here.  
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