Pruning the Bureaucracy

What does it take to be a top performer in a highly demanding political job in the U.S. government? The Council for Excellence in Government undertakes to answer that question in its latest Prune Book. Published this month, The Prune Book: Making the Right Appointments to Manage Washington's Toughest Jobs examines 39 pivotal jobs in defense and foreign policy; health care; the environment; civil rights; law enforcement; national infrastructure; the economy and trade; and federal management. It is avalaible online at

The book's author, former longtime foreign service officer John H. Trattner, interviewed dozens of former occupants of the jobs in the course of his research.

The new book takes a detailed look at the presidential appointments process, and, in another special section, offers advice on surviving and succeeding as a federal executive. The book aims principally at Senate-confirmed positions, but it notes that the spread of political office-holders in federal agencies has gone far beyond the 700-plus people who hold these jobs (up from 100 in Franklin Roosevelt's day). That's too bad for high-ranking civil servants, as the following passage notes:

"How deep into the cabinet agencies should political appointments go? Over the last 25 years, the tendency has been to go deeper and deeper. The reasons vary: more campaign/political supporters and party factions that must be rewarded or placated with jobs in government; the felt need, sometimes driven by ideology, for more political control of the governing apparatus. A former senior political appointee recalls suggesting to an incoming administration that `this is your only opportunity to put career people into some of these key jobs; if you put advance people from the campaign in them, they're going to screw it up. Well, they didn't want to hear it.' But the issue remains, this veteran says: `There are certain decisions that can only be made at the front end of an administration, when positions aren't encumbered and when agencies aren't encumbered.'

"He laments the shouldering aside of valuable career people that results from the excessive layering of political appointees. Not many presidencies ago, people at the top of the career service `could expect to actually interact with the president or certainly with people who interacted with the president,' he points out. Having worked their way to the top, they assumed there was a way to get their experience and advice to the top political decision-maker. `Now that's gone,' says this former high-ranking appointee. `And what we've got is the secretary, deputy secretary, and bunches of under secretaries, all with special assistants and assistants to special assistants--who are all political.' It is this `giant tier' of political appointees, not the president or other White House executives, who now do the interacting with the most senior career officials. `The people at the top of the career service can't get even to the secretary of the department and may not even be able to get to the assistant secretary,' he says. `It's profoundly demoralizing.' "

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