Amateur Government: When Political Appointees Manage the Federal Bureaucracy


No one would ever have brain surgery performed by a science policy expert without a medical degree who had never set foot inside an operating room. No one would ever have a high-rise office tower designed and built by a real estate industry lobbyist with no architectural training or any construction experience. And surely no multimillion dollar corporation would ever place at the head of a major operating division a young man a few years out of college who had never managed funds or supervised more than a handful of people– even if he were the son of the CEO’s boyhood friend.

Yet the management qualifications of most political appointees
in our federal government–and even the technical qualifications of
many–are no more relevant to their positions than those of these three
hypothetical candidates.

We entrust the administration of the largest “company” in the
country, with the biggest budget and staff, the widest range of products
and services, and the greatest impact on the life of every American, to
a cast of well-meaning political loyalists with little or no management
experience. They may be smart, committed, and frequently highenergy
workaholics, but most have never run anything, except,
perhaps, a political campaign.

We are a society obsessed with credentials. We demand board
certifications for our professionals and licenses for just about everything,
from plumbers to day care providers. In addition to formal training and
degrees, we also expect demonstrated experience and the testimonials
of satisfied clients and customers.

Yet, when it comes to selecting the top leadership of the
executive departments and agencies in our national government–
including not only cabinet secretaries and agency administrators, but
also the many hundreds who head the next two or three organizational
echelons–we abandon essentially all professional standards. We accept the rather mindless notion that any bright and public-spirited
citizen can run a government agency, bureau, or office.

Under the mistaken notion that few, if any, managers already in
the federal government can be trusted but that all political appointees
can, each Administration fills the preponderance of its appointments
from outside of the government. Thus even those appointees who do
possess the requisite combination of management and technical
expertise are largely unfamiliar with the departments and agencies
which they will head, and with the systems, procedures, and “culture”
under which they will operate.

What other enterprise would do this, even in the pursuit of
innovative thinking and policy correctness? Perhaps a major
corporation or institution would fill its chief executive and/or one or two
other senior positions from the outside, but would any fill every senior
management position with individuals with little or no inside experience?
Would any organization so managed have any reasonable expectation
of success? Fortunately for the government, it has no competition, and
thus has never had to pay the price of this bizarre method for selecting
its top managers.