Research note. The US Administrative Presidency and the Fundamental Flaw of Distrustful Leadership

by William G. Resh

As President Barack Obama ends the final Congress of his presidency facing majority opposition in both chambers of the legislature and ostensibly an opposing ideological majority in the Supreme Court, the legislative success of his administration’s policy agenda is largely in the rearview mirror of his tenure. Thus, as is common to most “lame-duck” presidents, the president looks toward bolstering his presidential legacy through his role as Executive-in-Chief of the United States federal bureaucracy. Recent indications—whether through strengthened gun control by executive memoranda or immigration policy reforms by executive order—evidence President Obama’s reliance on this role in domestic matters during his second term. This is an exceedingly common enterprise in the modern US presidency, as presidents seek to concentrate on implementation issues and leverage administrative power to assure short- and long-term alignment of agency actions to their respective policy preferences and legacy.

An important question, however, is to what extent this is possible, given a president’s managerial strategy leading up to that point? Why do presidents face so many avoidable managerial dilemmas across the entirety of their administrations, but especially toward the end of their administrations when a president’s administrative goals might be more explicit and better aligned with their appointed leadership’s prerogatives than during the first term?

In my recent book, Rethinking the Administrative Presidency (Johns Hopkins University Press), I attempt to open the “black box” of organizational behavior in US federal executive branch agencies by examining one critical aspect that facilitates the connection between presidential efforts at politicization and performance—the relations between appointed and career executives. By modeling these relationships using original and secondary data, I reveal a mechanism by which efforts at political control actually harm agency performance. I examine the “administrative presidency”—the collection of managerial and personnel strategies that are typically employed by modern presidents to “exert control over the executive branch in order to ensure that their policy preferences will not be subverted, intentionally or otherwise, by [career] officials unsympathetic to those preferences.” (B.A. Rockman, 1986). I do so from the seldom-analyzed perspective of careerists in the executive branch—illuminating the importance of inter-personal and intra-organizational trust in the context of federal agencies, and linking a contextually based definition of trust to intellectual capital development as a precursor to successfully advancing presidential agendas administratively. Specifically, the book investigates the means and extent to which the George W. Bush administration (during its second term) was able to increase the reliability and reduce the cost of information to achieve its policy goals through administrative means—namely, the strategic use of presidential appointment powers.

In turn, I test the degree to which the variables that produce intellectual capital are moderated by the political and organizational dynamics within which organizational actors are embedded. The empirical models are constructed using data from several interrelated sources—both administrative and survey data. Importantly, the book also interlaces evidence culled from interviews of career executives and managers, as well as political appointees. The research highlights the importance of functional relationships between careerists and appointees in the interest of advancing robust policy and the narrower prerogatives of presidents and their appointees.

I put forward a rather simple, but important, argument in this book… that presidents (and, by proxy, their appointees) commonly start from the premise of distrust when they attempt to control agencies. In doing so, these control efforts communicate distrust to the career bureaucracy, further diminishing trust throughout the hierarchy. Like trust, distrust is reciprocated and has “trickle-down” effects through lower managerial levels of the hierarchy. Thus, the decline in trust reduces information sharing between careerists and appointees and hurts agency performance in both the short and long terms—i.e., both “objective” performance and the president’s ability to see through his policy prerogatives administratively. Importantly, I theorize and model the moderating effects of politicization and other organizational-level factors on appointee-careerist trust that more accurately capture the contingent nature of these relationships.

In short, the roles of trust in appointee-careerist relations and informational exchange emerge as critical subjects for analysis in studies of presidential control of the bureaucracy. It is unlikely that information is shared that would be helpful to all participants in a low-trust environment. Information is necessary for presidents to translate their policy goals into outcomes and information is necessary to prevent harmful agency failure. This book refines, elaborates, and extends important aspects of the conventional wisdom associated with traditional approaches to the study of the administrative presidency. This includes evidence of the paradoxical effects of administrative strategies premised on distrust of careerists, of the need to reconsider if Bush’s use of these strategies actually reflected a more contingency-based approach than previously thought, and of the utility and importance of incorporating previously untapped research in related fields when studying the administrative presidency.

The importance of appointee-careerist relations is not exclusive to the Bush administration or to Republican administrations, generally. Well into the Obama administration’s first term, a study from the Government Business Council indicated that the administration’s appointees generally lacked both “functional and agency-specific knowledge,” were unwilling to collaborate or communicate with career employees, and exercised familiar top-down management approaches intended to control, not facilitate, bureaucratic action:

“[Careerists] believe appointees don’t understand human resources and procurement rules, saying they presume the ‘institution is there as an obstruction’ and therefore attempt to ‘break organizations.’ Appointees have ‘unbelievably poor communication with career employees,’ one commenter said. Forty percent of managers gave them Ds or Fs on collaboration and communication with their staffs… [One] manager said the result has been “politicization of normal agency functions.” (govexec.com)

Importantly—as I argue in the book—one might not glean the extent of this politicization through traditional structural measures of the construct. Whereas efforts to maximize the political responsiveness of the SES were perceived when the GW Bush administration increased the percentage of SES who were non-career to 9.97% of the total ranks, in the Obama administration, non-career to career proportions fell back down to pre-GWB levels (8.6% in 2013).

Yet, while his Republican predecessors met collectively with career members of the SES early in their administrations, Obama did not choose to meet with senior career managers and executives in the executive branch until near the end of his second term (in 2014)—to the chagrin of many senior executives. As Senior Executive Association president Charles Bonosaro lamented, “It’s always baffled me that a president wouldn’t just do this early on, because it sets a tone, not only for the career executives, but also the political appointees, who then get the message that the career executives are part of the team.”

Most indications are that the career SES has generally come to be seen by the Obama administration as mere conduits of top-down policy decisions from an increasingly large and complex White House staff, without regard to career executives’ talents, contributions, expertise, or the difficult conditions under which they serve (e.g,. cutbacks, furloughs). This may be a result of an increasing distrust of government generally (by the general population and the short-term politicals delegated to lead it), the increasing partisan divide (such that none other but “loyalists” can be trusted), or a general lack of competence in public management by presidential administrations generally. Nonetheless, as evidenced in this book by the relative failure of White House mandates being implicitly self-executing, these appointee-careerist relations might inhibit Obama’s threat to Congress that he will use all the powers of his office to advance his prerogatives. With the most recent estimates of appointee vacancies in his last year in office being close to 25%, it may very well be the career SES on whom the majority of federal agencies must rely for  critical dimensions of leadership and on whom Obama must rely to secure his legacy… for better or worse.

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William G. Resh is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School for Public Policy. His work focuses on executive politics and organizational behavior.

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