Why career feds are needed now more than ever

The increasingly complicated issues facing agencies are not a good fit for short-term appointees, writes Cisco's Alan Balutis.

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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