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Political Appointments and Government Performance: What can be done?

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

By The National Center for Public Performance
January 31, 2017

The power political authorities and their political appointees have to substantially change organizational strategy and performance is a topic worth discussing during this time of executive transition. In fact, there is a strong consensus in both the academic and the practitioner world on such influence, a feat not often achieved. Gallo and Lewis discuss the trade-offs politicians make when selecting their politically appointed  managers in “The Consequences of Presidential Patronage for Federal Agency Performance.” The authors compare the performance of organizations headed by political appointees versus career executives and found the agencies run by campaign or party appointees received lower performance assessments than those run by career executives. Furthermore, acknowledging the threat of politicization through discretionary appointments poses to public sector governance and management, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) compares the institutional reforms several countries have adopted to control such phenomenon as a way to promote them among other developed and developing countries.

figures-1010678_640In some of the most unequivocal language one is likely to read in an academic article, Wood and Waterman in “The Dynamics of Political Control of the Bureaucracy” state the evidence for active political control “is so strong that controversy should now end over whether political control occurs.” Moreover, they suggest political appointees are the most important instrument of political control compared to other mechanisms authorities use such as administrative reorganizations, congressional oversight or budget modifications. Indeed, the authors analyze several agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Food and Drug Administration to show how Reagan’s charge of “regulatory relief” permeated the bureaucracy after key appointments. Once appointments were made in these agencies, enforcement activities saw a steep decline illustrating the political philosophy of the president and his appointees.

The infamous story of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during Hurricane Katrina is perhaps more fresh in our minds. Not only can political appointees change the direction of an agency, they can fundamentally change the capacity an organization has to perform its essential duties. In a 2006 congressional report, investigators looked at both the causes and effects of government failures during the tragic storm. The report issued several conclusions regarding the performance of emergency response systems:

  1. Long term warnings went unheeded and government officials neglected their duties to prepare for a forewarned catastrophe;
  2. Government officials took insufficient actions or made poor decisions in the days immediately before and after landfall;
  3. Systems on which officials relied on to support their response efforts failed; and
  4. Government officials at all levels failed to provide effective leadership.

But why did these failures occur? The former Director of Response at FEMA made it quite clear to investigators:

The impact of having politicals [appointees] in the high ranks of FEMA … that’s what killed us, was that in the senior ranks of FEMA there was nobody that even knew FEMA’s history, much less understood the profession and the dynamics and the roles and responsibilities of the states and local governments.

Nevertheless, evidence supporting the conclusion politicization jeopardizes organizational performance is insufficient. We need to know how we can start avoiding these pitfalls, especially considering institutional changes to further regulate politicization is unlikely to happen in the short or midterm. For help in this department, we need only to refer to Wood and Waterman’s work as they also found the key is in the decision-making structures of organizations: those with a more centralized decision-making process are much more sensitive to the influence of appointed managers in bureaucratic outputs. In essence, organizations with very top-down leadership structures are much more likely to be influenced by the political agendas of their appointed chief executives.

The importance of decision-making systems is also substantiated by our experience visiting organizations that either have implemented performance management systems or are in the early stages of developing one. Establishing a culture of performance among people at all levels of the agency is helpful when trying to start measuring performance but it is vital if you wish to sustain a high performing organization. We recall a visit to a large transportation authority where during a monthly performance-stat meeting. A more robust conversation regarding the data was had between the individuals presenting and the packed room of attendees from other departments than between those presenting and the executive board to whom the presentations were being made. More often than not, in organizations with a vibrant culture of performance, the real data-driven conversations happen at the lower levels. They occur between and among programs and not between departments and the executive leadership.

There are countless other examples of organizations weathering the storm of political change and maintaining a well-functioning performance system. Cities like Baltimore and San Francisco and states like Maryland and Colorado have all maintained an office of performance during different administrations, and the common thread which connects them all is an appreciation for quality improvement and a desire to achieve high performance at all levels of the organization. The threat of politicization is greatest in agencies which lack a well established culture of performance and therefore require a strong chief executive to push for it.


  • Andrew Ballard is the Managing Director of the National Center for Public Performance and is pursuing a PhD at Rutgers University-Newark. [email protected]
  • Javier Fuenzalida is the Assistant Director of the National Center for Public Performance and a PhD student at Rutgers University-Newark. [email protected]
  • The National Center for Public Performance (NCPP) at Rutgers University is a research organization devoted to improving productivity in the public sector. 

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