Appointee-careerist relations in the presidential transition of 2008-2009.

Author:Resh, William G.
Position:Report
 
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Thus the political executive and his political staff become 'jigsaw puzzle' managers. Other staff see and work on the individual pieces, but never have enough of the pieces to be able to learn the entire picture.

--Michael Sanera, Mandate for Leadership II (1984)

In the end you usually develop a very good relationship. The way you do it is you're loyal to whoever's [sic] here, and you work hard for them. If they're any good, they discover quickly that you're quite an asset to them.

--Anonymous Career Senior Career Executive at Department of Education. (1)

At the center of the administrative presidency, the relationships between appointees and career executives are critical to understanding a president's effectiveness in advancing his policy agenda. Presidents attempt to achieve responsiveness to their executive authority through the strategic use of appointment powers and increases in the number of unilateral appointments, while simultaneously centralizing policy making to a cadre of identified loyalists (Lewis 2008). Appointees' ideological loyalty to presidential prerogatives is often the driving force behind the placement of many appointees (Durant 1992; Wood and Waterman 1994). The logic underlying presidents' emphasis on loyalty is that appointees can limit career bureaucratic discretion, shift the responsibilities and goal-orientation of employees, and broadly reorganize human capital (Durant and Resh 2009; Nathan 1983; Waterman 1989).

Certainly, the personnel management advice emanating from Washington's most prominent conservative think tank during the Bush administration was evocative of the same advice the organization proffered to the Reagan administration two decades earlier. In a document that clearly outlines the hostility the writers held toward the career civil service, Moffit, Nesterczuk, and Devine (2001) outline propositions in a Heritage Foundation policy document that are synonymous with the "jigsaw puzzle" management approach of the Reagan administration: (2)

  1. "The new President must make liberal use of his power of appointment, get a loyal team in place to carry out his agenda, and insist on accountability while maintaining a clear distinction between career and non-career employees."

  2. "Political appointees must be in charge of implementing the President's policies and readily available to speak for the Administration."

  3. "Political appointees should make key management decisions; such decisions should not be delegated to the career bureaucracy."

  4. "The new Administration should provide a clear rationale for continued reductions in the size of the federal workforce and for management changes; workforce reductions should be well planned and systematically implemented."

An extension of the politicization strategy, the jigsaw puzzle management approach relies on the normative assumption that career bureaucrats will act to sabotage the popular mandates for presidential action in areas that do not comport with the status quo that careerists are purportedly interested in maintaining (Sanera 1984). Therefore, the prescription is set forth that appointees subvert these perceived careerist intentions by bypassing career senior executives for policy advice, using them to carry out programs while keeping them in the dark as to the overall strategy being pursued (Benda and Levine 1988; Golden 2000; Ingraham 1995; Pfiffner 1985).

In many respects, the general perception of presidency scholars and journalists prior to that memo supports the notion that the Bush administration replicated largely the jigsaw puzzle management practices of the Reagan administration. The White House had (1) centralized White House Office approval for each Schedule C appointment (Pfiffner and Patterson 2001; Warshaw 2006); (2) developed a strict hierarchical, top-down authority structure in almost every area of government (Suskind 2004); (3) emphasized ideological and personal loyalty to the president as appointee selection criteria (Warshaw 2006; Romano 2007); and (4) exercised a general rejection of the career bureaucracy's involvement in day-to-day implementation and policy-making decisions (Hedge 2009; Lewis 2008; Moynihan and Roberts 2010; Warshaw 2006).

However, it is important to understand under which conditions the appointment strategy can be used to cheaply and effectively advance presidential agendas. It is also important to understand how expectations of its usefulness can be shaped under each. For instance, as I will explore below, even the Bush administration recognized the need for careerist input and expertise in policy decisions. At the end of the Bush administration, the president issued a memo (through Office of Management and Budget [OMB] Deputy Director Clay Johnson) to work with careerists to implement a coordinated and coherent transition to the incoming administration. Ironically, the application of jigsaw puzzle management leading up to this effort may have sabotaged its success.

In this research, I am interested in seeing how career executives perceive the use of jigsaw puzzle management techniques, under what conditions its application was most likely to be perceived by career executives during the second term of the Bush administration, and what happened at the end of the Bush administration when the White House called explicitly for appointees to pursue a transition strategy that required the involvement of Senior Executive Service (SES) members and their subordinates. I study this question in a policy area that provides a practical focus for analysis because it is one that was intended to be concomitantly implemented across agencies, in a largely common manner, and carried out according to a centralized presidential mandate from the White House to political appointees. The policy that I examine is the Bush administration's preparations for the presidential transition of 2008-2009. Importantly, the mandate from the White House explicitly directs George W. Bush appointees to work with career executives in formulating implementation plans and carrying out implementation.

Studying the implementation of a centrally mandated policy from the White House calling for career involvement to make for a smooth transition allows me to indirectly assess the effects of prior appointee--careerist relations in the Bush years. If I find empirically that jigsaw puzzle management was used to implement a policy requiring careerist involvement more broadly, a curious irony is identified, one that may indicate why knowledge of transition activities was limited (as the following section will discuss in greater detail). If I do not find it, or I find some modified or more nuanced version of jigsaw puzzle management, this will provide some evidence that conventional wisdom may have to be rethought and alterative metaphors considered that better fit the reality of appointee-careerist relations.

To test the question of how much careerist input and participation was valued by the Bush administration as input to facilitating the transition, I use a survey of members of the SES administered by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) in October 2008. This survey addresses SES involvement in the 2008-2009 transition, as well as the members' general perceptions of presidential transitions. The respondents' general perceptions of presidential transitions help inform what factors between appointees and careerists commonly inhibit good appointee--careerist relations.

Career members of the SES are the units of analysis for this research. Data were collected from an electronic survey conducted by the NAPA from September 29 to October 24 of 2008. The population was based on a census of all career senior executives working at the time of the survey. According to September 8, 2008, administrative data provided by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the population of filled career SES positions in the U.S. federal government was 6,481. The survey was distributed to approximately 4,799 potential respondents and was returned by 1,116, a 23% response rate.

At the time the survey was implemented, the 2008 presidential election was yet to be decided. By then, the Bush administration had begun extensive activities in preparation for the upcoming transition (Kamensky 2008; Pear 2008). A memo was issued on July 18, 2008, to members of the Presidential Management Council by Clay Johnson, Deputy Director of the OMB. The memo directed agency political leaders to (1) name a career executive as the transition coordinator at each agency; (2) name a career executive "to serve in place of departing political officials in each major bureau"; (3) develop a briefing book identifying each agency's organization, performance goals, and key personnel; and (4) "identify 'hot' issues that need the attention of the new administration" (Johnson 2008; Kamensky 2008). Johnson encouraged appointees to "do transition planning with (not to) career officials" (emphasis added in Kamensky 2008). According to the aggregate results of various polls that reported margin of error between July 18, 2008, and September 29, 2008, predictive outcomes of the presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain were at a virtual tie. (3) Therefore, the timing of the survey presented an opportunity to gain an insightful look at the activity involved with the Bush administration's transition management plan.

In many ways the present study offers a critical case analysis; if anywhere, we should see evidence of faithful implementation given the White House's explicit call for appointees to cooperate with careerists. Moreover, the analysis allows us to examine how the administration's general management approach prior to transition activities might affect how the administration made use of the career senior executives in an area for which the creation and existence of the SES is particularly suitable. That is, the SES was ostensibly created...

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