Political Management Strategies and Political/career Relationships: Where Are We Now in the Federal Government?

By Ingraham, Patricia W.; Thompson, James R. et al. | Public Administration Review, May-June 1995 | Go to article overview

Political Management Strategies and Political/career Relationships: Where Are We Now in the Federal Government?


Ingraham, Patricia W., Thompson, James R., Eisenberg, Elliot F., Public Administration Review


For much of this century, but most notably for the past 25 years, political/career relationships in Washington have been marked by presidential efforts to direct and control the permanent bureaucracy better. The key players in this relationship are the political executives appointed by the president to serve as policy managers in the executive branch and the top career management cadre--since 1978, the members of the Senior Executive Service (SES). The relationship has many inherent tensions; since the presidency of Richard Nixon, those tensions have often been exacerbated by presidential management efforts (Nathan, 1983; Arnold, 1986; Pfiffner, 1988).

The foundation of the tensions, of course, is power. The potential for members of the permanent bureaucracy to develop a power base independent from that of the president (or the Congress) is great; tolerance for that power is not. Bureaucratic power flows from expertise, from stability and longevity, and from inevitable involvement in all levels of policy development and implementation (Meier, 1993). That power, however, is often viewed as antithetical to presidential efforts to redirect and/or redesign public policies to reflect electoral "mandates" (Aberbach and Rockman, 1976). Career executives, on the other hand, often see political appointees as short-term and sometimes misguided members of the organization who do not have the ability to provide the long-term leadership necessary for significant policy change (Heclo, 1977; Ingraham, 1987; Ban and Ingraham, 1990).

The fundamental issue is not whether the president has the right or the legitimate authority to exercise direction and control. That authority, while shared with Congress, is clear. Neither the extent to which presidential management strategies achieve the outcomes desired by the president and his appointees nor the extent to which these strategies contribute to better government is clear. A brief review of the strategies employed is useful in understanding the problem.

A Short History of Presidential Management Efforts

The report of the Brownlow Committee, appointed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, provides an apt starting point for considering presidential management efforts. The committee's assertion that the president needed to be a "responsible chief executive" and "...the center of energy, direction, and administrative management" for the federal government laid the groundwork for a significantly expanded presidential role (Brownlow Committee, in Mosher, 1976; 114). Since that time, every president has had a strategy (some more limited than others) for achieving that objective. All of the strategies have employed a hierarchical model of management, in which appointees exercise management prerogatives through clear lines of authority and control with a clearly defined superior/subordinate relationship between political executives and the career civil service (Ingraham, 1992). This model of management was most clearly articulated in the strategies employed by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. It was present in a less straightforward form in some of the components of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA), particularly the Senior Executive Service.

Recent presidential management activities have included larger numbers of political employees as a significant component of an overall strategy. For political management strategies, the benefit of both upper level Schedule C appointments and noncareer reserved political SES appointments is that they may be placed throughout the organization in key policy positions, rather than only in the "traditional" top level management slots. They are much more flexible in this respect than the presidential appointment/senate confirmation appointees.

The placement of politicals in traditionally career slots raises several issues in terms of defining what political and career roles are in the permanent bureaucracy. McFee (1991) and others have noted that using political and career executives effectively requires more careful thought than has been apparent in the past decade in terms of necessary skills, accurate placement, and, most significant, definition of what is appropriately political and what is, or should be, career. …

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