Study says career executives make better managers than appointees

Career federal executives do a better job of running federal programs than political appointees, according to a new report from two university scholars.

Career federal employees do a better job of running federal programs than political appointees, according to a new report from two university scholars.

Political appointees often do not have the management skills and agency experience needed to successfully run federal programs, according to John Gilmour of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and David Lewis of Princeton University. The two scholars studied the Bush administration's quarterly management grades and found that federal programs run by political appointees received lower grades than those run by career employees. The Office of Management and Budget uses a traffic light-style system for rating compliance with the president's five-part federal management agenda.

"Senior executive-run programs are better able to translate the interests of stakeholders into a clear, consistent program purpose," the two scholars concluded in their report.

Political appointees are often selected for political reasons rather than their talent in a particular area. Appointees also don't stay long, the two scholars determined, making them less able to develop the relationships and institutional knowledge needed to steer federal programs.

"Senior management continuity helps programs craft and communicate clear goals to program employees over a longer period of time," the scholars found. "Frequent turnover among political appointees, however, creates leadership vacuums in federal programs."

The study pointed to criticisms that security lapses at the Energy Department stemmed from frequent leadership turnover at the agency.

Senior managers have a greater connection to their staffs and often understand where change is needed and how to make it happen, the study said.

"Because senior managers are more likely to remain within a program through several administrations, they are more likely to have developed the personal networks and skills that facilitate governance," the scholars wrote.

The conclusions reached by Gilmour and Lewis mirror assertions put forth earlier this year by Paul Volcker, chairman of the National Commission on Public Service.

According to Volcker, federal workers who have held their jobs for years are in a much better position to know what is going on at agencies and make certain decisions than political appointees who step in for a couple years and have no historical perspective on events. In a report issued by the 10-member commission earlier this year, Volcker called for reducing the number of appointees.