Scholars rank federal leaders among the best

fmicciche@govexec.com

The government functions remarkably well, enjoys strong popular support, and is led by some of the best trained executives in the nation, according to a new book that chronicles thirty turbulent years in the life of the federal bureaucracy.

The book "In the Web of Politics," by political scientists Joel Aberbach and Bert Rockman of the Brookings Institution Press, follows changes in the senior ranks of the civil service from the Nixon Presidency through the first year of President Bill Clinton's tenure.

Although the authors' research is seven years old, they claim there is no reason to believe that their findings have substantially changed in recent years.

Aberbach and Rockman, who interviewed senior executives in 1970, 1986-87 and 1991-92, found no evidence of a decline in the caliber of federal management, which is measured by the number of graduates from prominent universities among the upper-levels of the civil service. They also did not find a large difference between the academic qualifications of senior federal executives and their counterparts in the private sector.

"This (the Senior Executive Service) may be the most elite group of individuals you'll find anywhere," said Rockman in an interview this week from his University of Pittsburgh office.

The author noted that the SES is even more impressive given that the Ivy League schools used as a principal measure of academic excellence often lack the technical, highly-specific training required of certain civil service positions. "Harvard doesn't have a school of agriculture," he noted.

Still, political appointees and elected officials are to blame for most of the government's problems, the book said. Appointees and elected officials tend to politicize decisions, which contributes to the public's lack of faith in government.

The politicizing of the executive branch is a trend that can be traced to the Nixon Administration. The 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, which increased presidents' ability to stock the newly established SES with political appointees, also contributed to polarization within the bureaucracy, the book said.

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