Too many political appointees, not enough expertise or reward to competence
For a number of years I worked at the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville, VA. FEI is the executive skills training and leadership development facility for the top levels of the career civil service. Founded by Lyndon Johnson, it was supposed to be the civilian equivalent of the Army and Navy War Colleges. It was a very frustrating experience for me. It was all we could do to persuade agencies to give our federal executives the time off to attend our one-month residential flagship program. Executive skills training was just never a high priority on any recent Administration's agenda be it Republican or Democrat. During my time at FEI, I was invited to spend some time at South Korea's equivalent institution, the Central Officials Training Institue in Seoul. I was very sad to see that, in comparison to the U.S., every career civil servant in South Korea is entitled to 2 full years of tax payer funded senior management training. Vociferous conservatives who accuse the U.S. federal government of hopeless incompetence ought to wise up and understand that, as with so much else in life, you get the government you pay for. If I had just one job I could do in the Biden Administration, I would want to run the Office of Personnel Management. From there, I would begin the unglamorous and thankless process of reforming and building a world class civil service for the U.S. It's way past time we realized Lyndon Johnson's human capital strategy for federal executives.
This is another area where it would be nice to see blue states lead, but I don’t know of any cases where this has happened. Civil servants are better paid, but you still have the transition and prestige issues (and they aren’t *that* much better paid).
I think part of the issue is the social status of bureaucrats. The very word has taken on an unfortunately pejorative tone.
A beneficial aspect of Trump's election-loss tantrums has been the opportunity for state election bureaucrats to shine. See Tim Wu's excellent column in the NYT today.
The same was true of State Department bureaucrats during impeachment hearings.
I'd like to see a Foundation create a prize for bureaucrats who are courageous and impactful in pursuing their lawful duties.
Matt, this is the kind of serious Slow Boring work we're here for! Administrative competence may be our biggest ongoing crisis. It doesn't seem to get the attention it deserves, or any at all.
Disappointingly, I have many family members that supported Donald Trump. This was my biggest point of discussion with them. Changing their viewpoints on issues >> not easy. I would spend the vast majority of my holiday (usually civil) political discussions explaining that Trump and Republican members of congress were entirely unable to competently execute any parts of the agenda they claimed to support (judges and tax cuts, notwithstanding).
I'm reminded for the quote attributed to Fiorello LaGuardia: "There is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets." I want some clean streets, and it would be nice if it was an issue we just took off the table as something to worry about.
New York and California are not leading the way on a good model for blue governance. Rhode Island may be a bright spot, but I fear that may be related to one particularly competent governor, and not entirely systemic.
Another unappreciated aspect of the US system is that it discourages ambitious people from becoming civil servants. If you're an ambitious young person and you know you can't rise to the level of assistant secretary without playing politics, why join the civil service? The pay is already not comparable to the private sector, so if you take away the potential for prestige, what's left?
Competence is indeed an important part of job performance. Lurking within your characteristically thoughtful essay is a deep unhappiness with the "revolving door," a model of dysfunction suggesting Evil Corporate Types exploiting their temporary government job for future profit. The threat is legitimate, but IMHO the left exaggerates it. For example, though I know nothing about railroads and their administration, it seems likely that a railroad corporate executive would know a great deal about the topic, unlike (say) a career politician, an academic economist, or an employee of an NGO.
This problem has long historical roots. I'm studying environmental policymaking in the 1950s and 1960s, and most early air pollution control agencies were staffed by engineers who had served in industry. Not surprisingly, they emphasized cooperation with industry as the best means to reduce air pollution.
The U.S. has historically lacked prestigious educational programs that train future bureaucrats, unlike France with its École Nationale d'Administration. Of course, today, many universities offer degrees in public administration, and programs like SIPA at Johns Hopkins train future diplomats. However, many MPA students already work as civil servants and are just using the MPA for career advancement.
In any case, outside of diplomacy, the U.S. has failed to embrace the ideal of the civil servant, who has neutral competence and a loyalty to their program's mission, regardless of administration. Not surprisingly, Republicans have been able to frame civil servants as part of some sinister Deep State. I don't know how that will change.
A few non-partisan =) things to highlight on the Canadian system related to your article:
As someone else mentioned, Canadian governments are much easier to bring down through votes of confidence. Alternatively, Canadian governments (even minority governments) have it much easier to actually do something. This creates an incentive that narrows the political windows of both ministers and public servants. Libertarian burn-it-downers and full-blown socialists tend to either hide or lose their firebrand opinions very quickly once they enter the blob.
This tends to have downstream impacts in the sense that the two main parties don't have many ideological MPs and indeed, anyone too ideological ends up being an embarrassment for the leadership. The one exception is the leadership convention (our leadership primaries) where potential leaders tend to make cases for a party vision. But its worth thinking about how many Canadian MPs are as ideologically extreme as, say Rand Paul or AOC. This is not to say that there is huge partisan polarization or highly charged political issues.
I was at a presentation by a former Conservative Party of Canada minister and he made this little jab at the previous libertarian speaker on a particular topic, noting that he too read Atlas Shrugged in high school and got into politics to bring it all down. But once this former minister ended up in charge of a department that not only is indefinitely more complex than he thought but had to decide on tons of funding and policy, you tend to focus on running the ship and defer to the crew who know the in's and out's. This is also compounded by the fact that the hugest stakeholder for most departments is the provinces and territories, so any grand vision of shaking things up tend to run into transactional federalism.
Even Freeland, who was a famous econ journalist and probably has no shortage of interesting innovative, will and probably run into this when she tries to turn her favourite Yglesias blog post on Georgism into reality. What ministers often do is set the agenda space and keep highlighting to bureaucracies what burning issues keep them or the Prime Minister up at night.
Now if you are someone who is highly ideological and care strongly about changing the system, this system is bad! A lot of Canadians are extremely ideological and hold extreme opinions on these grand issues of capitalism, immigration, ethnic change, regulatory states, or corporate power, just like other electorates.
Here is something to consider. I am sure the reason why a lot of these agencies were designed with so many Senate-confirmable appointees was Congress saw this as a way to keep oversight over the large executive branch. Whether or not this actually works in practice is a different story.
In Canada and other parliamentary governments its much easier to bring down the government if the prime minister isn't behaving. So maybe that's why they don't feel the need to stack these agencies with political appointees.
I work in a senior career staff role at an executive branch agency and interact with low-level political appointees every day. I can't endorse this post strongly enough. This administration has been especially bad, but even during previous administrations our political leadership has always had an incredibly thin understanding of the agency and what we do. Additionally, we take most of our marching orders from the White House, but we still have to brief our in-house leadership and make them feel important even though they don't have authority to make decisions about anything. All they do is get in the way and slow things down.
I also want to say that it's been my experience that the civil service workforce is very bimodal. Some people are incredibly smart, competent, and hard-working. Some people are here because its impossible to get fired. There is nothing in between. I think Trump's EO creating a new schedule F designation was clearly done for nefarious reasons, but in the hands of a more responsible administration it could be a good thing.
The career parts hits home.
Considering the rising home prices in DC and the surrounding suburbs. Accumulating "time in government" to later "cash in" should be no surprise.
Especially when entry level jobs - exp. the Hill, start at 30k. Amazon HQ2, consultancies, and defense offer a great substitute. Taking talent away from government with government money.
I think a related issue is part-time governance. It is wild to me that in my home state of WA, the legislature adjourned on schedule in early March and has not reconvened during the pandemic.
The spend 60 or 120 days in session (depending on whether it's a budget year or not), and that's it. The result is a lot of really rushed decision making.
I've thought about this for years and am glad you wrote about it. I think about it as paying for talent. I also think about how our political talent pool is shallow, which explains how we hand-wring our way through presidential primaries and often get truly unqualified people elected. Because if you're talented, why on earth would you choose that as a career? The US economy competes for top talent with high compensation, and being a civil servant or elected politician is a low pay proposition. On top of that, it's a low prestige walk of life and you have to put up with a huge amount of s--t while doing the job or trying to get elected. You would probably instead go work in tech, or finance, or nearly any other private industrial career or maybe academia. I wonder if dramatically boosting the pay of politicians would attract and retain top talent, plus provide a disincentive for corruption because you get paid enough that you wouldn't want to lose your straight-forward compensation. That, and what you wrote about around more civil service permanence.
One reason this is hard to fix is that staffing with the same people between administrations means that there will be policy continuity between administrations. But we currently have a politics where the desired policy swings so wildly that if you wanted to actually enact it, you'd probably need different people at more levels than in Canada.
Of course, that's partly just that Republicans don't want to run the country well, more broadly than just not wanting to regulate. But there's not really a fix for the lack of consensus about what we should do as a country.
While Canadian Deputy Ministers are typically career civil servants in the majority of cases, this is a bit of an odd situation as Paul Rochon announced that he is resigning mid-month. His replacement, Michael Sabia, is a bit more non-traditional in that he didn't rise straight through the ranks of the civil service. He's a former federal civil servant but also had sojurns as CEO of a major Quebec Bank, CFO of CN, and CEO of Bell as well as Chair of the Board of the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which while non-political, is a creation of the current government. No one seems to think he's unqualified or anything but a bit of a different path.
Matt, I had trouble understanding this sentence fragment: "Freeland and Fortier by Sean Fraser as parliamentary secretary for the department, that’s a kind of junior political role that up-and-comers get." If you would like some editing help before you publish, I'd be glad to contribute pro bono.