It’s the Layers, Not the Numbers, That Count

March 1, 2001

The Heritage Foundation has warned the Bush administration not to listen to any of those “good government groups” that want to cut the number of political appointees. Not only is the number of appointees a “mere drop in the ocean of career bureaucrats,” says the Heritage Foundation, but also a President can hardly be expected to fulfill his mandate alone or implement his policies “without a cadre of like-minded, personally committed appointees within the agencies.”

Heritage’s position forces the venerable think tank to defend a host of ridiculously over-titled plums, including deputies to the deputy secretary, principal assistant deputy undersecretaries, principal deputies to the deputy assistant secretary and chiefs of staff to the assistant assistant secretary. It also puts Heritage on the same side as the Clinton administration, which used similar arguments to justify a veritable bacchanal of political layering after it defeated a Senate-passed cut in the number of appointees back in 1994.

The Heritage Foundation is on exactly the wrong side of the prevailing wisdom about how to make big organizations work. America’s leading corporations realized long ago that effective leadership is not to be found in the absolute number of leaders, but in the ability to drive a clear vision down through a relatively flat organization. If appointees are so important to leadership, how has every administration since 1980 been able to survive with a constant 20 percent to 30 percent vacancy rate in its top jobs?

The Heritage Foundation would be on much safer ground arguing against the phenomenal layering of the federal bureaucracy. This layering was largely to blame for the celebrated security problems at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab and the abuse of taxpayers by the Internal Revenue Service. The layers of deputies at the departments of Treasury and Energy created a fog in overseeing the front lines of each department.

In reality, the number of political appointees in government is anything but a drop in the bureaucratic ocean. To the contrary, political appointees occupy a large proportion of the government layers that undermine presidential control. As of 1993, when I did the last painstaking count of top-to-bottom layering, political appointees accounted for nearly 40 percent of the supervisory layers between the President and air traffic controllers, veterans hospital nurses, food inspectors, forest rangers and customs inspectors; 50 percent between the President and Social Security claims representatives; and nearly 80 percent between the President and wage and hour inspectors.

All told, the ratio of political layers to career civil servants was 1-to-3 in 1993. And that was before the Clinton administration added 16 new titles to the senior hierarchy. The front lines of government have never been farther from the President.

This is not to argue that political appointees are the only layers that matter. Much as former Vice President Al Gore celebrated the administration’s success in winnowing down the number of mid-level managers, anecdotal evidence suggests that the layers have increased over time.

Many mid-level managers retained their supervisory responsibilities in newly created non-supervisory positions such as management support specialist and team leader. Managers are managers, regardless of their titles.

Whether justified as a way to implement the President’s agenda or a device for controlling wayward bureaucrats, layering almost always produces a net decline in performance. Ideas and guidance must travel farther to reach their destinations, even as managers invent needless rules to justify their continued employment. As a result, more hands must handle the directives, more signatures must grace the page and more readings must be made of every decision.

Although it is hardly the place of a Brookings scholar to advise the Heritage Foundation, let me make the following modest proposal in the hope of finding common ground with my Heritage colleagues. Put all of the career and political layers on the chopping block and cut them by half. If the President can cut layers without cutting a single political appointee, so be it. And if the career workforce can redeploy every last one of its managers into real non-managerial work, so be it as well.

At least for now, the Bush team is focused on implementing the President’s promise to eliminate 40,000 mid-level managers’ positions. But they would do well to remember that Gore did just that with no noticeable flattening of the hierarchy. They would do much better by setting a modest goal of reducing the number of federal management layers to no more than 10, and take their cuts from the political and career ranks alike. Surely that’s one proposal with which the Heritage Foundation could agree.