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Light on Leadership

Slimming our federal leadership

This column is co-authored by Russ Feingold, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin and a member of the Senate Budget Committee, and Paul Light, a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service and the host of Light on Leadership.

The strength of presidential leadership isn't defined by the number of political appointees. Having more appointees doesn't make presidents more effective; in fact, it makes them less so. Yet the number of appointees has ballooned over the years. Since John F. Kennedy entered office in 1961, the number of cabinet secretaries has gone from 10 to 15, the number of deputy secretaries from six to 24, the number of under-secretaries from 15 to 53, and the number of assistant secretaries from 87 to 257.

These numbers do not include the huge increase in the number of presidential appointees who serve without Senate confirmation. There was not a single Schedule C "personal and confidential assistant" in the federal hierarchy until 1953 when President Dwight Eisenhower created the new title. There are now 1,500 or so. Nor was there a single political member of the Senior Executive Service until 1978. There are now 700. Add the numbers together, and the total number of political appointees is more than 3,000 today, up from barely 500 in 1961.

These lieutenants now occupy between a quarter and two-fifths of the management layers between the president and the front lines of government where services are delivered. Among the soon-to-be-classic titles are principal associate deputy secretary, assistant deputy under secretary, senior principal associate assistant secretary, assistant assistant secretary, and associate deputy assistant administrator.

These jobs are not only hard to fill in today's cumbersome, risk-averse appointments process, they have also created infinitely confusing reporting chains, a constant shuffling as appointees come and go, and uncertainty or even paralysis as civil servants wait for signals from the top. Presidents cannot create strong leadership when they have to wait more than a year to fill their top job; nor can they provide inspiration and accountability when their appointees start packing for their next jobs only 18 to 24 months after arriving.

This constant rotation is particularly troublesome for the faithful execution of our laws. By the time an idea filters through so many layers of government, it has been rewritten to the point of irrelevance and confusion. This interference is almost unavoidable if presidential lieutenants and their "alter-ego" deputies are to show their worth, but it distorts information nonetheless as leaders and front-line employees play the childhood game of telephone on some of the most important issues in the world.

More importantly, the thickening of the federal hierarchy helps explain federal breakdowns where someone waved a red flag on the front lines only to be rebuffed at the middle or higher levels, leaving secretaries and administrators ample cause to wonder why they were never told about the problem.

There is another cost to the increase in political appointments, too - and this one comes in dollars and cents. With our country facing record deficits, we should make sure that taxpayer dollars are not spent to fill unneeded government jobs.

It is time to start the streamlining. Cutting the number of presidential appointees is a first step. Slashing the number of presidential appointees by a third would not only save almost $1 billion over the next ten years, and it would strengthen the president's leadership by creating what Alexander Hamilton called "clarity of command." And it could lead to an overdue discussion of streamlining the entire federal bureaucracy.

Founding father Alexander Hamilton did not believe that more leaders produced either vigilance or safety from tyranny. On the contrary, he worried about the tyranny of executive isolation and abuse. Citizens' confidence in the executive rested in the president's immediate access to every last person in the federal hierarchy. More than 200 years later, presidents are lucky if they have direct access to every last person in the cabinet secretary's office.

It is time to restore greater accountability at the top of the federal bureaucracy. There is no easier way to do it than cutting the number of leaders. It is easy, fast, and saves money. We can cut the number of leaders while still making sure that the right people are in the right place with the right authority and accountability to do their jobs for the American taxpayer. Cutting the number of presidential appointees is a good first step.

By Paul Light

 |  April 15, 2010; 6:19 AM ET |  Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I like this idea. In my experience, part of the problem with the political leadership is the fact that the politicals often know little about the implementation of the programs they are overseeing. They come in with grand, often good, ideas, but no sense of how to put them into practice.
Since they do not trust the civil servants to provide good information, they bring in a cadre of young, inexperienced campaign staff to serve as "special assistants".
There are often years wasted as the new leaders try to force through changes that have often been tried in the past or that could have been more successful with the input of the civil staff who know the programs well.

This staffing situation also allows politicals to avoid any prioritizing of goals, since they have an unlimited number of staffers to meet their every need.

But if the politicals can't couldn't create all these political positions, how would they reward campaign staff and loyal party members?

Posted by: skeptic421 | April 15, 2010 8:09 PM

Between the debt and other bad ideas, slim to none looks like a safe bet. We can't gamble with national security and wager another 911 won't happen. Bravado only gets you or others killed.

Posted by: tossnokia | April 15, 2010 7:10 PM

Wow, you make it sound so simple.
The problem is not the number of positions. At the risk of being overly pedantic, the Federal Government is a bit bigger than it was in Hamilton’s Day, and what works for an organization of a couple hundred is not the right solution for a couple hundred thousand. Besides, it takes an exceptional leader to run a flat hierarchy. Anything above a span of control of five subordinate leaders is more than most mere managerial mortals can handle.
Cutting the number of leaders does not lead to better accountability, just fewer people juggling even greater span of control issues. There was a logic to the growth of governmental leadership positions. In my experience, these positions are usually created in response to some extra-organizational stimulus; ie increase in congressional oversight requirements or changes to the operational environment such as technological and cultural innovation requiring specialized expertise. I agree that all of these positions do not necessarily need to be political appointees, but to eliminate the positions completely will result in the same amount of work being executed by fewer people. Cutting leadership without paring down responsibilities would lead to both predictable and unanticipated abuses.
No, the problem is, as mentioned, the hiring process, but also the firing process. It is very hard for a leader to hire or fire someone in the US government. As a result the bureaucracy is incredibly resistant to organizational, much less cultural, change.
Do by all means however, get rid of the ridiculous titles. I laugh every time I am presented with a Deputy Assistant Under-Secretary for Whatever.

Posted by: jbtdickey | April 15, 2010 3:15 PM

It's a good start. What about check-the-box hiring?

Posted by: biffgrifftheoneandonly | April 15, 2010 8:18 AM

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