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Acting is About Deceiving

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anna Marie Schuh 
July 12, 2019

The purpose of government is to do what the private sector cannot or will not do for the welfare of the governed. Much of this work involves managing regulations that protect citizen health and safety from both physical and financial harm. However, the federal government is currently losing the capacity to protect citizens. This capacity loss is related to a specific management approach from the current administration.

More specifically, the current administration has accumulated days with vacant cabinet positions at a rate four times higher than any administration since Ronald Reagan. Apparently, this vacancy rate is a management feature of the administration because the president has noted that he has more flexibility with acting leadership. However, there are a number of problems with acting leadership and these problems inhibit successful governance.

First, acting cabinet members do not experience confirmation. This means that the Senate has no chance to review an individual’s background and suitability for a position. This lack of public vetting can result in conflicts of interest and corruption. Given the many scandals that have involved confirmed appointees, it is reasonable to assume that similar scandals have occurred with acting appointees.

Second, subordinates perceive acting individuals as not having full authority. This is because acting leaders are subject to termination at any point and this threat of termination changes normal behavior. For example, acting leaders are unlikely to make needed change either because the changes might upset political leadership or, more importantly, the leader might not have sufficient time in office to complete the change. Also, in emergencies, acting leaders might not be able to make necessary quick decisions because they feel the need to clear decisions with political leadership.

Third, acting leaders cannot provide organizational stability, which is a major factor in retaining and attracting first-rate employees. More specifically, acting leaders do not provide long term organizational objectives because they know their tenure is limited. Acting leaders cannot ensure that employees are empowered to complete assignments without political intervention. An even more serious issue is that acting leaders often do not receive sufficient information from political leadership to provide assignment context for employees.

Fourth, leadership instability causes poor morale. With respect to the current situation in the Federal government, a 2018 Best Places to Work in Federal Government study conducted by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and the Boston Consulting Group found significant reductions in positive Federal employee views about their employers. The study noted that lack of effective leadership was a prime reason for the sharp decline. A key example in the study was a 25.2 point drop for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that had experienced major leadership change, resulting in a 75 percent reduction in its publicly announced enforcement actions.

Fifth, weak leadership leads to employee turnover. High turnover rates result in high costs for activities involving recruiting, hiring and training new employees—costs that tight government budgets cannot afford. In addition, organizations with weak leadership as well as insufficient and untrained employees are more likely to make mistakes.

The effects of these problems are already evident in agency operations. For example, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) staffing shortages caused the January 2019 delays at airports and may explain FAA’s increased delegation of certification tasks to airplane manufacturers. In the food safety area, the Department of Agriculture eliminated the office charged with policing meat companies that defrauded farmers. The Transportation Security Administration expects a 4.5 percent increase in passenger traffic while only requesting a 2.5 percent staffing increase, which will lead to long airport security lines. The State Department has recently increased the minimum wait for a passport by 50 percent.

The effects of these problems are also being noted by Federal workers. For example, in a survey of federal employees by the Government Business Council about the 2019 government shutdown, a survey respondent noted that, “[The shutdown] is part of a larger strategy (e.g. appointment of leadership that does not value the mission of their agency, failure to appoint senior management needed for effective decision making, hiring freeze, failure to enact budgets at the beginning of the fiscal year) this administration is taking to erode the effectiveness of the civil service.”  This quote highlights the fact that Federal employees see what is happening in their agencies and correctly discern the results of those actions. 

In short, acting leadership is weak leadership that provides a rich environment for problems. As John Lithgow noted, “Acting, at its best, is all about deceiving people…”  The main deception in this situation is that the government is functioning normally. The facts suggest otherwise.


Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last Federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: profschuh.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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