Why career feds are needed now more than ever

Alan Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems' Internet Business Solutions Group.

I recently wrote a book titled “Transforming American Governance” with Dwight Ink, president emeritus of the Institute of Public Administration, a fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration and an icon of government management. Dubbed “Mr. Implementation” by William Eggers and John O’Leary in their book “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon,” Ink began his career in local government and later served in senior federal policy positions under seven presidents, with responsibility for a variety of national security and domestic activities.

I thought of him this week as I contemplated the muddled state of government management. When I came to Washington many years ago, the senior “management” person in most departments was the assistant secretary of administration. Back then, that person was likely a career executive who had risen through the management ranks and had often worked in at least a couple of the relevant disciplines: budgeting, procurement, human resources and the like. She or he oversaw the full array of management and administrative responsibilities, each similarly led by a career senior executive.

Over the years, each of those senior directors has become a “chief” — a CIO, CFO, CHCO, CAO, CISO, etc. — and a great number of those positions are reserved for and/or filled by political appointees. The title and position of assistant secretary for administration have gone the way of the Model T, replaced by an undersecretary for management, usually a position that is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. As such, we can expect the life span of such chiefs and undersecretaries to be 18 to 22 months, the average stay in public service for someone at the deputy assistant secretary level and above.

The challenges in government management today are serious and complicated. They include replacing a large array of public servants from the retirement-eligible baby boom generation, using technology to transform the way the government delivers services, implementing financial systems that will help deliver clean fiscal opinions and meaningful performance data, and overseeing private-sector contractors. They often require intricate multiyear initiatives and efforts, which is hard to do when leadership turns over so quickly, a dilemma noted by New York University Professor Paul Light in his work on the expanding number of political appointees.

Mark Abramson, an old friend of mine, used to compare government to the legendary Pony Express, which once delivered mail on America’s western frontier. He used the analogy when discussing the career workforce and senior political appointees. The careerists are like the pony, the appointees like the rider, he would say. But at each way station, instead of changing horses as the Pony Express did, in government we change the rider. Then we’re off in a new direction, with new milestones and new processes.

To paraphrase Ruth Marcus’ recent opinion piece in the Washington Post about career politicians, the paradox of federal management these days is that it is one of the few areas for which lack of experience is considered a major qualification or, conversely, one in which extensive experience and insight gained during a career in public service are looked upon as negatives.

In other words, wanting to do the right thing doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to get it done. The more complicated the issue — from workforce planning to contract management, from state-of-the-art technologies to green buildings, from overseeing multibillion-dollar accounts to security and privacy issues — the more valuable the institutional knowledge. The next administration should reduce the number of appointees and return management responsibilities to the careerists.

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Reader comments

Tue, Feb 7, 2012

Pony Express analogy. In my agency, we 1st shoot the rider, feed the hoses bull, then constrain the horse with a rope, allowing it to only run within a circle.

Thu, Jan 26, 2012

There are two reasons, one bad and one good, for political appointees. The bad is for elected officials to able to payoff their cronies. The good is so that elected officials can put someone they trust to better run the government beauracracy in the way they were supposedly elected to do so. (Sometimes that can be bad either because that way is bad or these elected officials want to run things differently than they led their voters to believe they would.) What the problem is that too many career Feds do not care one wit about what the voters want them to do and do all sorts of things to work around their short term upper management directs them to do. (I have seen plenty of that.) With all the many protections built in for these career feds, these feds know they can get away with working against their elected officials. That is one reason why feds do not get the respect they think they deserve. Many private citizens feel they are powerless, and rightfully so, against the beauracracy that not only takes their money forcefully away from them but forces all sorts of rules, many that are just plain bad, against them. Career feds are often a good part of the problems that haunt this country. While there are plenty of career feds truely helping out, there are also plenty out there that are either incompetent, empire building at everyone elses expense, or does not work in the interest of the taxpayers nor care to do so for what ever reason. As such, I generally disagree with the author's overall premise.

Thu, Jan 26, 2012

Finally someone besides the career workers can identify what we as government workers have to put with every couple of years. It is a waste of time to put unqualified political appointees in positions that they do not have the knowledge or expertise to even understand what the real issues are. But as we all know, it will never change until the next unqualified appointee is selected. Our slogan, we the politicians.

Thu, Jan 26, 2012 strong supporter Fed OKC

Bravo!! Finally someone who understands the problem and solution. Alas, we're in a political storm that seems to be growing stronger instead of wiser - forever learning but never coming to true knowledge. Hopefully if it gets bad enough this will change.

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