Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Influencing Policy at the Top of the Federal Bureaucracy: A Comparison of Career and Political Senior Executives

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Influencing Policy at the Top of the Federal Bureaucracy: A Comparison of Career and Political Senior Executives

Article excerpt

Since the demise of the politics-administration dichotomy, we can no longer assume that public bureaucrats simply and neutrally implement the will of the legislative branch. Studies confirm that both career and political administrators contribute to policy making at the top of the federal bureaucracy (Aberbach, Putnam, and Rockman 1981; Heclo 1977; Rourke 1984). However, those specific duties and responsibilities which enable federal administrators to affect policy making are not entirely clear. Forty-two years ago, Marver Bernstein (1958, 1) lamented that "the executive's job in government is itself a proper subject of inquiry. Indeed, there is very little published information on what federal executives really do." Writing some twenty years later, Hugh Heclo (1977, 1) similarly remarked, "very little information is available about the working world and everyday conduct of the top people in government." Since then, case study research has detailed the extraordinary public service efforts of a few high-ranking officials (Riccucci 1995; Cooper and Wright 1992; Kaufman 1981; Lewis 1980), yet the work environment of federal executives across the entire government remains underexplored.

Today, the vast majority of federal executives are part of the Senior Executive Service (SES). Created under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA), the SES is designed as an elite corps of civil servants "to ensure that the executive management of the Government of the United States is responsive to the needs, policies and goals of the Nation" (Title 5, U.S.C [sections] 3131). Furthermore, the SES was expected to augment career executives' power and responsibility vis-a-vis political executives without sacrificing their protected civil service status (Huddleston 1987; Ingraham and Ban 1986). Toward these ends, the CSRA prohibits political appointees from occupying greater than 10 percent of the total number of SES positions and more than 25 percent of the SES positions within a single agency and classifies some positions as "career reserved" (Title 5, U.S.C. [sections] 3132-4).(1)

This article uses two sets of questions to explore the everyday working responsibilities of both career and noncareer members of the SES. First, what are the typical responsibilities of an SES member? Since Bernstein and Heclo long ago lamented the dearth of knowledge on this topic, we still know very little about the daily activities of current federal executives. What tools do SES members use to shape policy in Washington? To what extent are they involved in budgeting, personnel, policy and program decisions? Are they called upon to bargain and negotiate with other political players in Washington?

Second, this article examines whether career and noncareer members command significantly different responsibilities within the SES. Since it is widely recognized that career and political executives bring different talents and perspectives to their jobs, their responsibilities may likewise vary. Compared to their political colleagues, career executives' experiences and tenure in office supplies them with a longer time perspective, greater technical expertise and knowledge of government operations and procedures, and more established networks of relationships with other political actors. In contrast, political appointees bring fresh, new ideas to government as they strive to carry out the president's policy priorities (Bernstein 1958; Heclo 1977; Aberbach and Rockman 1981; Rourke 1984; Light 1987; NAPA 1989; Volcker 1989; Michaels 1997). Further, many scholars have chronicled the efforts of President Reagan(2) to diminish the influence of career executives by excluding them from policy-making networks (Aberbach and Rockman 1990; Ingraham 1987; Ingraham and Ban 1986; Newland 1983; Pfiffner 1987b) or by getting them "out of the policy action and into strictly managerial or technical roles" (Rockman 1993). Other studies, such as the Volcker Commission, suggest that the phenomenon of "creeping appointeeism," the process by which political appointees infiltrate further and further into positions to which career executives would normally aspire, diminishes career executives' career opportunities and access to influential positions (Heclo 1977; Ingraham, Thompson, and Eisenberg 1995; Light 1995; Michaels 1997; Pfiffner 1987b; Volcker 1989). …

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