A Deficit of Appointees … by design or default?

President Trump says he won’t fill many political appointments in his new administration. I don’t know whether that decision was by design or default, whether it was the cause or the result of the glacially slow pace of those appointments, but either way, it means fewer political appointees. It also means that career executives will be in charge, whether we like it or not. Does that matter?

In my view, an ‘appointee gap’ may not be such a bad thing, but that hasn’t stopped some pundits from raising the alarm, concerned that this will leave the administration with a political leadership vacuum at a time when such leadership may be needed most. However, I would contend that those concerns are based on several myths about appointees (and career executives) that bear closer examination. Let’s do that, using the proven Pinocchio scale to judge the veracity, and just maybe we’ll bust a few of those myths along the way.

So here goes…

Myth No. 1: Appointees are needed because only they ‘know’ the president’s agenda.

This myth gets a full four Pinocchio’s. It’s just not the case. The fact is that the vast majority of political appointees, particularly below the cabinet level, have never met the president, and they know no more about his agenda than any well-read bureaucrat.

That’s especially true down in the bowels of the bureaucracy, where appointees are asked to lead complex, arcane federal programs and end up spending most of their historically-short tenure just learning about their jobs. And those are the good ones! But most had no more idea of what the president wanted on any given issue than I did. In all my years as a career exec, I only worked for one or two appointees who actually met and talked regularly with POTUS in something other than a purely social or ceremonial setting. They surely knew the president’s agenda, because he told them what it was, often quite directly. However, that was the exception. Not the rule.

Four Ps.

Myth No. 2: Career executives can’t be held ‘accountable’ when they screw up.

There are two sides to this myth, and consequently, I have to give it no more than three out of four Pinocchio’s. We all know that the word ‘accountability’ is code for the ability to fire career executives with relative ease, and that’s what is behind the MSPB reforms legislated in VA.

Truth be told, those reforms are directed at a legitimate problem: When career execs (or rank-and-file civil servants for that matter) screw up, it currently takes an army of lawyers and months of litigation to deal with them. That must be fixed.

However, some of the fixes have taken us down a very slippery slope. It’s just too easy, too tempting for accountability to be judged in a partisan or political sense … as in unquestioned loyalty, regardless of legality or propriety. To guard against that temptation, career executives deserve the strongest possible protections, even if that militates against the ability to just say ‘you’re fired!’ And those protections don’t prevent an exec from being held accountable. There are plenty of less formal but no less effective ways (like immediate reassignment) to do so. However, on balance, there is some truth to this one.

Myth No. 3: Appointees are needed to change an intransigent bureaucracy.

The not-so-implicit assumption behind this myth is that career executives (and career civil servants generally) are the ones that need changing … in other words, they’re the ‘intransigent bureaucracy’ that lies at the heart of this legend. There’s some truth to this one too, but more appointees aren’t necessarily the cure for it.

Bureaucracies can be intransigent, but at least in theory, career executives are just as capable of breaking them up as an appointee … perhaps more so, inasmuch as SES candidates have to actually prove they can ‘Lead Change’ before they can even become an executive. Nevertheless, we all know too many of career execs who consider themselves defenders of the status quo, and in those instances, new leadership — whether it comes from an appointee or a career executive — may be just what’s needed.

That said, the fact that it more often falls to an incoming appointee to provide such leadership may be more a testament to the SES corps’ lack of mobility than their ability to do so. Thus, because it’s true about as much as it’s not, this myth gets two Ps.

Myth No. 4: Appointees bring a richer, broader set of experiences to the job.

This may not be much of a myth at all, and I think that’s unfortunate. Historically, career executives have been a mostly immobile lot; there are some exceptions of course, but most of them spend their entire careers in a single agency and function. Thus, those that may be called upon to act in an unfilled political position may bring strong technical skills, as well as unrivaled institutional memory, but when it comes to broad leadership experience, especially the kind acquired by serving in a variety of senior positions, political appointees may have an edge.

Not all of them, to be sure — many appointments are filled by policy experts (a.k.a., wonks) drawn from think tanks and academia — but enough come with the leadership chops to make a difference. That’s not to say that career executives can’t be developed as ‘whole of government’ leaders (see my anthology, Building a 21st Century SES, recently published by the National Academy, for lots of ideas in that regard), and there are many career executives who have demonstrated those skills; however, they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

So, this myth is too close to reality to warrant more than a single P.

Bottom line: The ‘appointee gap’ matters, but just not as much.

We need not complain too loudly about the slow pace of the Trump administration’s political appointments, nor should we lose a lot of sleep over his stated intention to leave many of them unfilled. In many cases, if not most, those posts can and will be filled ably by career executives, with no adverse impact whatsoever. We’ve already seen evidence of that in the relief efforts for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and now Maria.

Those relief efforts have gone remarkably well, given the ‘epic’ circumstances, and you could count the number of federal-level political appointees involved in them on the fingers of one hand. Despite the dearth of political leadership, all those faceless, ‘deep state’ bureaucrats have gotten a very tough job done. To be sure, they are being stretched by Maria, but no one (other than perhaps the most ardent climate change conspiracy theorist) could have anticipated three storms of the magnitude we’ve seen this summer. It would seem that career civil servants can actually perform without a lot of adult supervision from political minders.

However, this should NOT be taken as a polemic against appointees. I’ve worked for dozens from both political parties, and with only a few exceptions, they provided the leadership expected of them … by their administration, as well as by those they led. All of the myths (and the realities) notwithstanding, they were honorable people who wanted to do the right thing. Whether you need over 3,000 of them is debatable, but given the president’s stated intentions, it looks like we’ll get the chance to resolve that debate once and for all.

A retired career federal executive with almost 40 years of public service in six different agencies, Ron Sanders was recently named director of the University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs; Ron has been contributing to Federal Times since 2013 and will continue to do so in his new capacity.