Why We Should Care About Politically Appointed Diplomats

As Biden’s leadership team takes shape, it’s a good time to examine the research about political versus career appointments.

“Personnel is policy,” the adage goes. So how will President Biden’s choices to staff the State Department affect the future of U.S. foreign policy?

As Biden’s leadership team takes shape, it’s a good time to examine the research about political versus career appointments. Like so many reform proposals, the issue implies some tradeoffs. It can be boiled down to a choice between control and competence.

On the one hand, presidents rely on political appointees to implement the agendas that got them elected, and political responsiveness to the electorate is a vital democratic principle. The American people deserve a government that is responsive.

On the other hand, empowering long-serving career officials ensures the most experienced officials are influential in the policy process and incentivizes the development of expertise through a career in government service. Research suggests the merit-based system improves performance of the bureaucracy by cultivating valuable expertise. 

The research on politicization offers no “goldilocks” formula to balance between political appointees and career officials. Instead, the Biden team must face the tradeoff between competence and control. 

The Case for Careerists

Research shows that career officials are on average more effective leaders who preside over better government performance. Career foreign service officer ambassadors tend to have higher qualifications, including better language skills, more international expertise, and better leadership when compared with political appointees.

Evidence further suggests that filling leadership positions with political appointees disincentivizes career experts from investing more heavily in building their skills to prepare for positions of higher authority. Observers suggest that limited promotion opportunities discourage would-be leaders from joining the professional service in the first place. 

Further, a merit-based system ensures that officials are hired, promoted, and fired based on the quality of their work rather than their politics, gender, or race. During a decades-long career at the State Department, one gains valuable expertise by mastering the bureaucratic rules and regulations, learning the intricacies of international relations, unraveling the complexities of the interagency process, and building relationships with a wide range of international actors. In contrast, political appointees have been derided as “strangers” in the organizations to which they are assigned.

A key feature of the spoils system is to reward the loyalty of political advisors. This carries a different set of explicit and implicit incentives than those experienced by a tenured career civil servant working for advancement within an institution over the long-haul. The American public is arguably better served when its diplomats are dedicated to the perceived long-term interests of the country rather than the electoral prospects of their party and president.

Advocates of a more professionalized diplomacy lament the unprecedented growth of political appointees throughout the State Department, from overseas ambassadorships to Washington-based policy positions. The rate of high-level political appointees at State have more than doubled since 1975, reaching a high-water mark during the Trump administration when you could count on one hand the number of career officials serving in leadership roles.

Finally, a key benefit of career civil service is that tenure offers officials more leeway to call out corruption and negligence without fear of losing their job. The spectacle of career diplomats courageously blowing the whistle against presidential misconduct demonstrated why nonpartisan service is essential to good governance. 

In Defense of Political Appointments

Presidents have long griped about their inability to control the State Department, contributing to criticism that an intransigent bureaucracy may act in non democratic ways. The distrust is understandable: career diplomats have a history of public opposition to presidents, especially during times of crisis. Political allies of the president may also have a better sense for American politics than bureaucrats.

The practice of appointing political supporters to leadership positions is a useful tool for controlling an executive agency. This need arises because the same mechanisms that protect career diplomats from political pressure makes them less responsive to democratically elected officials. The famous social scientist Max Weber even suggested that a political leader can be rendered a powerless “dilettante” by a talented bureaucratic.

Political appointees are valuable to presidents in other respects. Appointees often have personal relationships with the president that can help that official cut through bureaucratic red tape. Indeed, the bureaucracy is often described as slow to respond, resistant to innovation, inflexible in the face of new problems, and risk-averse. Political appointees may bring new ideas, management practices, or priorities from their experience outside the department that help refresh a stale institution. 

It is important to note that politicization is a bipartisan phenomenon, though there are some differences in execution. Research shows that conservatives are more likely to use direct appointments and reductions-in-force, while liberals tend to build parallel processes like special envoy offices as a means of increasing political control.

In sum, political appointments help presidents ensure that their agenda will be designed and executed according to their wishes. They may also help bring new ideas and innovation into government.

Striking the Right Balance

Presidents since at least Kennedy have often seen the State Department as an impediment to their foreign policy agenda. Each time the department is caught demurring on a presidential priority in the name of its own superior expertise, distrust grows between the White House and Foggy Bottom.  The bureaucrats almost always lose out in such confrontations. Political appointments are not going to be eliminated from the State Department anytime soon, but a few steps might help strike the right balance between the two camps:

First, State must rebuild its reputation for providing unique expertise to the president. Improving standards for evidence-based policy recommendations is a vital first step, and will help more clearly delineate the boundary between setting foreign policy objectives—the prerogative of our elected leaders—and deliberations over how best to reach those objectives, for which the American people have hired career foreign policy professionals. 

Second, if a president is dissatisfied with the responsiveness of the department, reform it rather than sideline it. For example, the Biden administration should streamline the clearance process to encourage faster response to White House priorities. Further, leadership at State could incentivize bureaucrats to better integrate the will of Congress and the American people into policy recommendations.  

Finally, President Biden has promised to “elevate diplomacy as the premier tool of our global engagement,” and “re-empower the finest diplomatic corps in the world.” Achieving this goal will require his administration to build a new bureaucratic “contract” whereby bureaucrats are promised more influence in the policy process while being held accountable for more faithfully executing whatever policy is ultimately decided by political leadership. Talented professionals are drawn to serve in Foggy Bottom because they believe in the mission and want to make a difference. Reinstating a healthy mix between empowering career officials and political appointees should be a cornerstone of his busy foreign policy agenda.

Dan Spokojny is the founder of fp21, a think tank dedicated to transforming the processes and institutions of foreign policy. He has served in government for over a decade as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer and as a foreign policy legislative staffer in Congress. Dan is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on the role of expertise in foreign policy.