Praising Civil Service but Not Bureaucracy

AuthorRobert Maranto
Published date01 September 2002
Date01 September 2002
Subject MatterArticles
Praising Civil Service but
Not Bureaucracy
A Brief Against Tenure in the U.S. Civil Service
Villanova University
Public administration writers contend that because career executives have
greater competence, the U.S. federal executivehas too many political appointees.
The author argues that opposition to more political appointees is based on mis-
conceptions about both the political and career personnel systems of the modern
federal civil service. The increased controversy of government policies since the
1960s and the concordant growth of the politics industry in Washington have
increased demands for relativelyhigh-risk political work in the executive branch.
Furthermore,the state of the merit system does not suggest that extending that sys-
tem to higher level positions would lead to a more effective or efficient civil
Among modern students of the U.S. executive branch, particularly those
writing from a public administration perspective, many argue that politi-
cal appointees are at best taking up space and at worst interfering with the
expert workings of the career civil service. In particular,public administration
writers contend that
1. political appointees have grown in number for questionable reasons;
2. political appointees are less expert than career executives, in part because
they are selected for reasons other than competence; and
3. other democracies succeed with far fewer political appointees than the
United States, so we can follow their examples.
Author’s Note: I wish to thank three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. I
wish to thank the faculty,staff, and other learners at the Federal Executive Institute and at
Villanova University for their insights. Finally, I wish to thank former Federal Executive
Institute director Curt Smith and former U.S. Office of PersonnelManagement director
James B. King for their willingness to think outside the box. The usual caveats apply.
Review of Public Personnel Administration,Vol. 22, No. 3 Fall 2002 175-192
© 2002 Sage Publications
at SAGE Publications on December 8, 2012rop.sagepub.comDownloaded from
See, for example, Ingraham (1987), National Commission on the Public
Service (1989), Weko (1995), Light (1995), Dunn (1997), and Cohen
(1998).1Such views rest on four commonly held myths about how the
American political appointee system works and on three others about how
the career civil service personnel system operates. Like most myths, those
about political appointees in the executive branch civil service are not
entirely wrong. They are based on limited data, however, and are sorely in
need of historical context and empirical testing. This article will argue that
despite very legitimate concerns, the American federal executive branch,
which combines a unique mix of “in-and-out” and career executives, actu-
ally works better than more stable alternatives. Extending the career person-
nel system to more positions farther up the civil service2hierarchy might
well do more harm than good. Indeed, it might make more sense to abolish
tenure in the civil service than to extend it. The same is not necessarily true
for state and local governments, which often come under less scrutiny,oper-
ate in less competitive political environments, and may have smaller and
less expert recruiting networks (Maranto, 1998a, 1998b).
First, this article examines misconceptions many analysts hold regarding
the political personnel system used by modern presidents. The growth of
the political appointment system reflects changes in the political environ-
ment of the executive branch. Within that environment, political appoint-
ees play a vital role that career executives may not relish taking on.
Myth 1: Politicalappointees have grown in number because of a lack of faith
in the bureaucracy’s abilities. This myth is not so much inaccurate as besides
the point. In fact, in recent years the numbers of political appointments
have grown not because presidents fear bumbling bureaucrats but rather
because of policy disagreements with specific agencies and to match the
broader Washington political environment.
The Evolution of Political Appointments: From Postal to Policy
Some history is in order.Through the first half of American history, gov-
ernment jobs were awarded in part to do the work of government and in
part to reward and hold a winning electoral coalition. Save for the NewDeal
years, when new agencies were staffed outside the merit system, the num-
at SAGE Publications on December 8, 2012rop.sagepub.comDownloaded from

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT