Career civil servants make more engaging leaders than political appointees, report shows

By on 03/03/2022 | Updated on 03/03/2022
The US federal government currently employs around 1,100 senate-confirmed executives, who tend to regard their roles differently to career executives

A survey report of 300 offices by the non-profit Partnership for Public Service has found that US federal employees feel more satisfied in their jobs when led by a career civil servant than by a political appointee.

The report showed that job satisfaction in agency sub-components led by a career senior executive fared 12% above those led by senate-confirmed individuals picked by the president. When looked at though a composite of several questions including job and workplace satisfaction from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, employees at career employee-led workplaces had an engagement score of 69.4 out of 100, seven percentage points above that for employee who worked in offices with senate-confirmed leaders in charge.

The partnership said that possible reasons behind the finding could be that while political appointees serve on average for just two and half years at their agencies, career leaders generally serve for longer periods of time. The impact of this is that career leaders give a greater sense of stability to employees, while political appointees struggle to motivate workforces.

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The report added that the upshot of high turnovers among appointees was that institutional reforms are more difficult to achieve. While serving, appointees also tend to struggle with adapting an organisations’ culture.

“For most agencies, two and half years is not enough time to understand, plan, implement and evaluate the effectiveness of reforms that would impact employee development, support, empowerment or supervision,” the partnership said.

“Similarly, the loss of institutional knowledge with turnover may disrupt program continuity and make it harder for agencies to deliver on their missions.”

Different styles and perspectives of career officials

The report showed the number of political appointees at the helm of agencies had risen by 59% over a span covering 1960 until 2016. The US federal government currently employs around 1,100 senate-confirmed executives, who the Partnership for Public Service said tend to regard their roles differently to career executives.

Senate-confirmed executives are appointed by the president, and so frequently see it as their job to steward the president’s policy agenda, according to the report. This often causes disruption to the continuity of employees’ objectives, leaving them ill-prepared and disengagement with work that deviates from their skillsets.

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“The presence, absence and management style of decision makers across agencies influences how an organisation addresses its goals, the environment and behaviour within agencies and even the posture stakeholders take towards that agency,” the partnership said.

On points of leadership style, the partnership’s report said political appointees often bring new perspectives to agencies, as well as more energy and greater risk appetite. However, the less political outlook career leaders develop over many years of experience and institutional knowledge gives them a better understanding of agencies. This, combined with their programme and policy expertise, makes them better able to tackle and resolve legacy problems.

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By contrast to other agencies, the partnership’s report said NASA is led by a presidential appointee, yet has come top in the partnership’s best places to work in government list for several years running.

“[NASA] has a ratio of about one Senate-confirmed appointee to 4,000 full-time, nonseasonal permanent career civil servants, which suggests the combination of political appointee leadership combined with the knowledge of career leaders can result in successful synergies.”

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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