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Former FEMA director Michael Brown defends himself on Capitol Hill on Sept. 27. (AP Photo)

Michael Brown as wake-up call to journalists

ASK THIS | September 29, 2005

You think FEMA is the only government department crippled by incompetent political appointees? Princeton University Professor David Lewis suggests some lines of inquiry reporters should pursue to determine the extent to which the federal government has been politicized – and what that means.

By David E. Lewis



Q. Are there large systemic forces at work that explain why someone like Michael Brown was appointed to head FEMA?


Q. Why do some agencies have more appointees than others?  Why does FEMA have so many?  Why does the Education Department have three times as many as other cabinet departments?  Why does this change over time?


Q. Does politicizing an agency by adding appointees make it harder to recruit and retain top quality careerists?


Q. Could we safely reduce the number of appointees in the federal government? What would be the consequences?


Political appointees serve an important role in the federal government. Presidents add appointees to get control of agencies as well as satisfy patronage demands.  Reducing the number of appointees would certainly improve some aspects of management but it would also make the government less responsive to presidential direction.  Presidents are held accountable for the performance of the entire government, so it is natural for them to push for more appointees to get control. 


Reporters can easily find out how many political appointees different departments have, and how that has changed over time, by consulting what is commonly referred to as the Plum Book, the official list of presidentially-appointed positions within the federal government.


The number of Senate-confirmed positions is fixed in law.  These numbers cannot be unilaterally changed by presidents. But there are two other types of appointees, Schedule C (think Linda Tripp, chiefs of staff, public relations officials) and appointed members of the Senior Executive Service (SES).  The SES is a layer of managers one step below the Senate-confirmed appointees.


Plum books have been published every election year since 1960.  The Office of Personnel Management also has data that can be requested.  It is available on-line from 1997 forward but their databases go back much further. 


One thing reporters should watch for carefully is an increase in the number of political appointees within a given agency. There is a natural tension between political appointees and careerists. For instance, if the top policy jobs and highest-paying positions are increasingly taken by appointees, and not open to careerists, that tends to make being a career employee less attractive.  Skilled careerists with good outside options are more likely to leave when appointees are added.


Driving out career employees can result in a loss of expertise, institutional knowledge, long term perspective, and break up networks of relationships that facilitate governance across agencies.  Career employees at the management level have worked their way up through the agency and know how it works, its routines, its culture, where the power is, and the ins and outs of policy.  They often know and have ongoing relationships with key stakeholders.  These stakeholders are key for implementing any agency policy.  When careerists leave or get forced out it becomes harder to manage the agency.


Admittedly, this is a rosy picture of careerists.  Some are timid lazy bums. But the truth remains that there are costs to gutting career staff.  Sometimes the costs are worth paying to get a moribund agency working again but there are still costs.


Here is an anecdote from a recent paper of mine that illustrates this phenomenon:


In the summer of the 2004 President Bush appointed Porter Goss to succeed George Tenet as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Goss brought with him a number of political appointees from Capitol Hill to help him run the agency. Conflicts quickly arose between Goss’s new team and career staff at the CIA. Goss froze top careerists out of high level decision making and sought to put his stamp on the agency.  Goss’s actions created significant attrition among top career managers at CIA.  The Director of Central Intelligence, the Executive Director (3rd in command), and the head of the Analysis Branch all left.  In total about 20 top career managers within the agency left after Goss’s arrival. The “Gossification” of the CIA, while praised by some, was widely decried on Capitol Hill and the press as bad management that could have dangerous consequences for national security.


The uptick in the number and percentage of political appointments across the government during President Bush’s first term demonstrates that Porter Goss’s tactic at the CIA is not an isolated incident.  The CIA case illustrates a number of important general conclusions about politicization from this paper.  First, politicians politicize when they believe an agency does not share their preferences.  The CIA was politicized because the Bush Administration and Goss were suspicious of the loyalty of the CIA and did not believe that CIA’s  policy views coincided with their own.  Indeed, many in the administration believed the CIA to be a rogue agency and the source of embarrassing leaks during the 2004 campaign. 


Second, politicization results in lower agency competence.  The politicization of the CIA undoubtedly hurt its capacity.  Morale is lower and losing the institutional memory, expertise, and human capital associated with 20 of the top career managers at CIA has hurt the agency.  But, this illustrates a third point which is that sometimes presidents are willing to trade capacity in order to get an agency to share their  policy views and be responsive to presidential direction .  Goss and the administration knew what the likely consequences of their action would be.  Their own perception of the competence of the people who left was undoubtedly colored by partisanship and the failings associated with 9/11 and the intelligence work on weapons of mass destruction. 


Finally, members of Congress were divided about whether this widely acknowledged politicization of the CIA was a necessary tactic to reign in an unresponsive government agency or a dangerous example of bad management with potentially disastrous consequences for national security.  Generally, those members of Congress who shared the administration’s preferences took the former view while those who opposed the administration took the latter view.  This does not necessarily reflect only base partisanship.  Rather, it is an example of a more general pattern which is that members of Congress are much more tolerant of politicization when it helps a president of their party or ideology to get control of the bureaucracy.


As of this writing the upheaval within CIA stemming from Goss’s politicization seems to be over.  In its aftermath Goss has worked to rebuild CIA by restructuring and more hiring.  CIA will be a different agency when the next president assumes office.  Whether the next president trusts the new CIA more or less will partly depend upon the preferences of the next president and the long term consequences for capacity of this politicization.  Some partisans have called for President Bush to “Gossify” other parts of the bureaucracy.  Whether or not he chooses to do so likely will have dramatic consequences for policy outputs, political control, and agency performance.


Another thing to keep in mind is that the longer an administration is in power, the more influence political appointees will have over who populates the top career positions. That is part of their job.  Whether they do this on the basis of politics or competence depends.


One way of examining whether politics is playing an unusually important role in the hiring of careerists would to be to talk to old timers at the agencies, perhaps people at the Senior Executives Association, or people concerned with protecting the civil service system.


Michael Brown and FEMA


I was not surprised that someone like Michael Brown was appointed to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  James Lee Witt, as far as I can tell, was the only FEMA head with any emergency management experience prior to their appointment at FEMA.  Why is that?  There are probably a number of factors:


A) It is not a prestigious job and even less prestigious now that it has become a part of the Department of Homeland Security.


B) The kind of people who would be good at running FEMA are not necessarily the type to be active presidential campaigns.


C) The president probably does not know many people with emergency management experience personally who want the job.


D) Presidents want loyalty and they want competence and they often weight the first characteristic more than the second.  The number of people who are very loyal to the president and competent is small for many positions and the number shrinks the longer the administration is in office.  The second generation of appointees often does not know how to run a government bureaucracy. 


E) Historically, FEMA work was not rocket science and so the agency could absorb lots of political appointees without much damage to anyone.  There are lots of appointees in the Small Business Administration, the Department of Education, and the Department of Commerce -- but not in the EPA, NASA, the FDA or the FAA -- for a reason.  FEMA work historically did not demand a lot of competence from appointees.


Moving FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security may have been a big factor. The salary went down and the FEMA head became more of a middle manager than before. This also means that the appointees and careerists below the FEMA head lost prestige.

How Many More Mike Browns Are Out There?
A Time inquiry finds that at top positions in some vital government agencies, the Bush Administration is putting connections before experience. By Mark Thompson, Karen Tumulty and Mike Allen, Time Magazine, Sept. 25, 2005.

All the President’s Friends
Unfortunately, it's easy to find other agencies suffering from some version of the FEMA syndrome. By Paul Krugman, New York Times, Sept. 12, 2005.

An Uncivil Division
Political appointees to the Justice Department's civil rights division are driving career lawyers to retirement — then skipping the retirement parties. By William R. Yeomans, Legal Affairs, September/October 2005.

When Advocates Become Regulators
President Bush has installed more than 100 top officials who were once lobbyists, attorneys or spokespeople for the industries they oversee. By Anne C. Mulkern, Denver Post, May 23, 2004.

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