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date: 07 December 2019

How Effective are Political Appointees?

Summary and Keywords

Research in public administration and political science in the late 20th century and early 21st century has identified several factors influencing the effectiveness of political appointees, with a particular emphasis on the United States (given the outsized role of political appointees in the American system relative to those of other industrialized democracies). Within the American system, the advice and consent process means that acting and interim officials often run agencies and departments while nominees await Senate confirmation; however, that these individuals lack the perceived legitimacy that accompanies Senate confirmation means they are (often) less effective at ensuring bureaucratic acquiescence to the preferences of the president. Additionally, confirmed nominees can also run into trouble, as many are often appointed by presidents to “rein in” the departments or agencies they are chosen to oversee; this can result in deterioration in the relationship between themselves and careerists, which ultimately reduces the effectiveness of appointees. Individual variations in the leadership style of appointees in the United States can also affect their effectiveness and abilities to work with careerists. And scholars should spend time and effort considering the theoretical foundations of what it means to be “effective” and perhaps consider the development of new empirical operationalizations thereof. Accordingly, there is merit in assessing pertinent experience in other jurisdictions, including in Britain and South Korea to which brief reference is made in the discussion.

Keywords: American politics, political appointees, bureaucracy, public administration and policy, bureaucratic effectiveness, bureaucratic politics, executive politics, separation of powers

At the outset of each new presidential administration in the United States, the Office of Presidential Personnel attempts to accomplish the Herculean task of finding appointees to fill the more than 2,000 administrative positions that require senatorial confirmation, as well as several thousand more that do not.1 Doing so involves balancing multiple political, policy, electoral, demographic, and other interests, as well as considering how the appointees might interact with the millions of career bureaucrats employed in the civil service, many of whom they will oversee in their official capacities as executive branch appointees. The choices made by the president, the Office of Presidential Personnel, and other stakeholders ultimately influence the abilities of appointees to do the jobs for which they were selected.

Before discussing the myriad factors influencing the effectiveness of political appointees in the United States, it is useful to consider how they are selected; here, the focus is on the United States, given the outsized role of political appointees in the American system relative to those of other industrialized democracies, though comparisons are made to other countries when appropriate. Within the United States, there are, broadly speaking, two main routes by which appointees can begin their positions: they can be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, or they can be given more “unilateral” appointments that escape confirmation. Within the former category, one often finds individuals named to the most prominent and policy-relevant positions (e.g., cabinet members, members of independent boards and commissions, ambassadors, judges, etc.). However, not all individuals serving in positions that typically require Senate confirmation are themselves confirmed by the Senate. For example, under the Recess Appointment Clause of the Constitution, the president can fill appointed vacancies during congressional recesses, with the recess-appointed individuals staying in their positions until the end of the next congressional session. However, it should be noted that the Supreme Court decision in Noel Canning v. NLRB (National Labor Relations Board; 2014) placed significant restrictions on what counted as a “recess” for the purpose of the Recess Appointment Clause, and recess appointments have since dwindled in importance (Ostrander, 2015). Additionally, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 provides the president additional leeway when it comes to filling vacancies on an acting or interim basis. Other positions, such as Schedule C positions, noncompetitive Senior Executive Service (SES) positions, and various positions within the Executive Office of the President (including various policy “czars” responsible for formulating a significant amount of presidential policy [Vaughn & Villalobos, 2015]) do not require Senate confirmation.

That some positions require Senate confirmation and others do not dictates many of the strategies used by presidents and their administrations when choosing appointees, and often has major ramifications for appointees’ ultimate effectiveness. Indeed, there often are two parallel personnel processes in modern presidential administrations—one focused on finding jobs for “necessary-to-place” individuals and one focused on finding individuals for higher-profile positions that are often more policy relevant (Hollibaugh, 2017; Lewis, 2008). The former process is often focused on finding positions for those who volunteered on the campaign, are being supported by prominent or important politicians, are potentially important for electoral reasons, or are otherwise politically important (Gump, 1971; Hollibaugh, 2017; Hollibaugh, Horton, & Lewis, 2014; Lewis, 2008; Tolchin & Tolchin, 2010).

Nonetheless, the latter process (i.e., the more professional one) is not immune from political concerns. However, the desire to place politically compatible individuals in appointed positions often causes delay in the confirmation process because of senatorial resistance and often causes clashes with careerists; this is especially true when the administration’s goal is to politicize or otherwise politically reorient the agency or department in question. Moreover, delays in confirmation often mean that agencies are led by acting or interim individuals without the perceived legitimacy that comes with formal Senate confirmation.

Here, how these dynamics might affect the effectiveness of political appointees in the United States is unpacked, though the relevant dynamics in other democratic systems is briefly discussed when appropriate. In conclusion, “A Need for Better Measures and More Explicit Theory” discusses broader considerations regarding the literature’s use of multiple definitions of “effectiveness” and the implications for both theoretical expectations and empirical measurement.

Political Considerations and Effectiveness

In many cases, appointees are not chosen solely for their ability to increase agency performance in a narrow, technocratic sense. In the United States and many other countries, political appointees are chosen by elected officials. As such, appointees are often chosen for a wide variety of political reasons, which may range from ensuring political control of an agency to establishing or maintaining relationships with important political stakeholders, to signaling to (potential) campaign volunteers, as well as many others.

For many scholars of executive appointments, at least those focused on the United States, Moe (1985) is often the starting point for analyzing the relationship between appointees and political control of the executive branch. In this seminal book chapter, Moe argues that there is an inherent tension between policy responsiveness and policy competence (the “neutral competence” discussed by Heclo [1975] and others); he notes that although presidents like competence, all else being equal, they seek out responsiveness within the executive branch. As such, they choose individuals they believe will be able to ensure responsiveness. This often results in the highest-ranking appointees within executive agencies being chosen more for loyalty to the president and/or the president’s program as opposed to technocratic expertise. As such, there exists an inherent “loyalty-competence trade-off” within the American appointments process (Edwards, 2001; Gallo & Lewis, 2012; Hollibaugh, 2015a; Hollibaugh et al., 2014; Krause & O’Connell, 2016; Lewis, 2007, 2008; Mackenzie, 1981; Moynihan & Roberts, 2010).2

Scholars have since spilled much ink examining Moe’s claim. For example, Lewis (2008) shows that bureaucratic politicization increases when presidents perceive policy disagreement between themselves and the bureaucracy, especially in the immediate aftermath of a change in the party of the presidency. This suggests that presidents believe, at least at the outset of administrations, that political appointees might be effective at establishing political control, though actions later in administrations suggest that priorities change and/or presidents learn more about what might actually work in terms of protecting and advancing their agendas. Recent work by Krause and O’Connell (2016) suggests that presidents engage in experiential learning, and learn better how to manage the administrative state over the course of their time in office. In their paper, Krause and O’Connell show that how presidents value loyalty and competence (both policy and managerial)—and how much uncertainty they are willing to tolerate with respect to said traits—varies over time. At the outset of their administrations, presidents “appoint individuals who are more loyal than competent” (Krause & O’Connell, 2016, p. 920), though they soon begin to prize appointees who are more competent (on both policy and managerial grounds). Moreover, presidents become more attuned to the effects of uncertainty about appointee traits over the courses of their administrations, in time requiring more certainty about one trait (e.g., loyalty) in order to justify trading off another trait (e.g., managerial competence). They conclude this is indicative of presidents becoming better at demanding risk premiums as they learn how to manage the bureaucracy, focusing on different avenues for ensuring the effectiveness of their appointees.

That said, the political relevance of executive appointees extends beyond the ability to establish or maintain political control of agencies. Indeed, there exists a long tradition of providing jobs to those who volunteered on presidential campaigns, important party officials and other individuals relevant to the president’s political coalition (or individuals suggested by them; see Rottinghaus & Bergan [2011]), and numerous others (Gump, 1971; Weko, 1995). On average, such appointees have less expertise, though many of them are viewed as “absolutely deserving, and “if they [want] an appointment or some other consideration . . . [they will] get it” (Untermeyer, 1999). To address the concerns of these “necessary-to-place” individuals, separate personnel processes exist for those considered for patronage as opposed to policy concerns (Lewis, 2008, p. 30), with “one process revolv[ing] primarily around filling positions, and the other process revolv[ing] primarily around placing persons.”

However, given the lower levels of expertise among those chosen for patronage appointments, the existence of a person-centered (as opposed to position-centered) personnel process likely implies that the agencies in which such individuals are placed will suffer as a result, a proposition supported by recent work. For example, Gallo and Lewis (2012) and Hollibaugh (2015a) suggest that agencies administered by patronage appointees exhibit lower levels of performance, though others suggest that agencies headed by appointees in general—as opposed to career executives—tend to exhibit lower levels of performance on average (Gilmour & Lewis, 2006; Lewis, 2007); however, within the subset of appointees, patronage appointees tend to perform particularly poorly. Perhaps more worryingly, Hollibaugh (2017) suggests agencies targeted by presidents for patronage purposes can get caught in an “incompetence trap” wherein they maintain low levels of performance because of presidents facing numerous “necessary-to-place” individuals and yet not wanting to diminish performance within higher-performing agencies.

Given these potential negative outcomes from patronage appointments, as well as their political necessity, presidents have adopted strategies to place patronage appointees in positions where they might be most useful (or provide the least amount of harm). For example, Hollibaugh et al. (2014) show that agencies and departments with higher concentrations of patronage appointments tend to be agencies off the president’s agenda, in agencies that share the president’s policy views, and where individual appointees are least able to affect agency performance because of the nature of the agency’s workforce (but see Lewis & Waterman [2013] for an important contextualization of this claim). Additionally, Hollibaugh (2018) suggests presidents place fewer patronage appointees in agencies whose structures provide greater job protections for political appointees.

Notably, tension between bureaucratic responsiveness and professionalism/expertise is not unique to the United States. For example, Blondel (1985) notes that, in contrast to other Western European nations, British ministers were historically among the least likely to be chosen for their specific expertise, as few positions require specific, formal qualifications. Rather, British ministers historically have been chosen from Parliament itself. However, this dynamic began to change in the 1980s, with ministers becoming more involved in policymaking and developing “grander plans to introduce permanent change in the general directions of their department[s]” (Marsh, Richards, & Smith, 2000, p. 324). These changing dynamics, and the resulting need for more policy-specific expertise, likely had some influence on then-prime minister Gordon Brown’s decision to build a “government of all talents” and appoint many individuals from outside Parliament to the House of Lords in order to make them ministers. Unfortunately for many of those selected, despite their policy expertise, their lack of political expertise often hampered their effectiveness, and relations with Parliament and the public often suffered as a result (Yong & Bennister, 2011).

Overall, although other countries are not immune to negative consequences from the fundamental tension between responsiveness and professionalism/expertise, the consequences often manifest in different ways. Within the American system, appointees and the agencies or departments they oversee are often hampered by a lack of policy-specific expertise, whereas within the British system it can be the lack of political expertise that leads to negative consequences, as “ministers are not required to immerse themselves in minutiae . . . [but] they need to grasp the basic issues, inject the government’s political priorities into departments’ thinking and subject officials’ proposals to the litmus test of political acceptability” (James, 1999, p. 18). Indeed, “the few attempts to bring in expert ministers have not been great successes” (James, 1999, p. 18).

The Role of the Legislature and Implications for Effectiveness

As mentioned at the outset, and although numbers vary depending on time and source as well as the definition of “executive appointee,” at least 2,000 executive (i.e., non-military and non-judicial) appointees are subject to presidential nomination and senatorial confirmation in the United States (Lewis, 2008). Moreover, although there have been variations over time for numerous reasons, the number of positions subject to presidential appointment has generally trended upward over the past several decades. This expansion of the administrative state (or “thickening”) has largely been driven by increasing federal authority in various policy realms, as well as because of a desire for more political control of extant and new policy areas (Light, 1995, 2008).

Recently, the coupling of the Senate confirmation requirement with seemingly ever-increasing levels of political polarization has resulted in successive administrations facing more vacancies as well as vacancies that take longer to fill. Part of this is due to presidents spending more time searching for nominees that might placate hostile Senates more willing to use all procedural tools at their disposal; this is because confirmation duration increases and confirmation success decreases during times of high partisan or ideological polarization, especially when nominees are seen as ideologically divisive (Bonica, Chen, & Johnson, 2015; Chiou & Rothenberg, 2014; Hollibaugh, 2015b; Hollibaugh & Rothenberg, 2017, 2018; McCarty & Razaghian, 1999). Additionally, the somewhat decentralized nature of the Senate’s process also has a role to play, as nominees have to face questioning and mandated questionnaires by relevant Senate committees, the Senate at large, the FBI as part of the background check process, the Office of Governmental Ethics, and potentially other agencies and departments (e.g., Sullivan, 2009). As a result, the process itself often deters potential nominees, with few satisfied by the process as a whole (Light, 2008).

Because of the increased inter-chamber conflict over the nominations process, as well as the growth of the administrative state, the sub-cabinet has increased in importance. These positions, which include positions such as deputy secretaries and deputy attorneys general, have become more important as a result of increased vacancies in the highest ranks; as such, members of the sub-cabinet often find themselves serving as acting or interim cabinet members, which makes them more susceptible to the partisan warfare that has engulfed cabinet nominees. However, as these positions are themselves not cabinet rank, presidents lack the ability to effectively go public on their nominations, which further slows down their confirmations (Hollibaugh & Rothenberg, 2018; Ostrander, 2016). And when these individuals find themselves confirmed to the sub-cabinet, yet serving as acting cabinet members, their status as acting or interim officials means they often lack the perceived legitimacy necessary to enact substantial policy change (Vaughn & Villalobos, 2009).

Also worthy of discussion, though much less prominent post-2006, are recess appointments to positions that otherwise require Senate confirmation. Although presidents have often used recess appointments to fill positions in important independent agencies (Black, Madonna, Owens, & Lynch, 2007), especially when they have had little partisan support in the Senate (Corley, 2006), recent Senates have found ways to circumvent the ability of presidents to make such appointments (Black, Lynch, Madonna, & Owens, 2011); moreover, the 2014 Canning v. NLRB decision by the Supreme Court has, according to one author, “relegated [such appointments] to the status of a constitutional relic” (Ostrander, 2015, p. 571). However, it is unclear whether careerists perceive recess appointees to be more like Senate-confirmed appointees (with all the perceived legitimacy that entails) or acting/interim appointees, though agencies led by recess appointees tend to perform worse on average (Miller, 2015).

Regardless, these dynamics suggest the effectiveness of political appointees may be diminished by their sheer numbers and range of responsibilities. The latter often means that strong incentives exist for the Senate to delay and/or otherwise stymie the nominations process, especially if partisan and/or ideological disagreements are present. Additionally, the former means that confirmation delay results in large swaths of the federal administrative state in the United States being led by acting or interim officials who lack the legitimacy that comes from being confirmed by the Senate.

Outside of the United States, the formal selection process is obviously quite different, and the ability (and willingness) of other political actors to stymie the wishes of the appointing principal is generally more limited. In stark contrast to the American system are Westminster systems, though some variance exists in the extent to which ex ante control exists. Within the British system, for example, the prime minister has the effective power to both appoint and dismiss ministers at will. This results in far fewer ex ante controls on ministerial selection. However, because British ministers are typically drawn from the House of Commons and maintain their seats while serving as ministers, there is typically a greater amount of ex post control or influence, both from fellow members of Parliament as well as the Party. Indeed, effective ministers may have to shepherd legislation through the House of Commons and, as such, need to have expertise in parliamentary minutiae. As such, civil servants view ministers’ performance in Parliament as key to ensuring the viability of departmental priorities (James, 1999; Marsh et al., 2000). Given the centrality of legislative duties to many political appointees outside of the American system, effective appointees maintain good relations with the legislature and possess significant amounts of legislative skill.

Appointee-Careerist Relations and Effectiveness

The effects of political appointees can reach beyond constructs defined by political control, technocratic conceptions of performance, or the structure of the appointments process itself. Indeed, one needs to consider that agencies are collections of people, and political appointees—especially those not attuned to the cultures of the agencies in which they are placed—can often have deleterious effects on agency morale and intellectual capital. As such, presidents need to be particularly careful when selecting appointees—and appointees need to pay special attention to how they interact with careerists—to mitigate any potential negative effects.

That said, despite efforts that may or may not be undertaken by appointees, it is often their mere presence that negatively affects agency performance. For example, simply by virtue of their status as individuals who serve at the pleasure of the president, as opposed to career bureaucrats with stronger job protections, appointed managers serve for less time in their positions than do comparably situated careerists (Ban & Ingraham, 1990; Dull & Roberts, 2009; Heclo, 1977). As such, agencies led by appointees are less likely to have deep founts of institutional memory. Moreover, appointed managers are less likely to be able to credibly commit to longer-term agency goals or reform initiatives (Gallo & Lewis, 2012; Lewis, 2008). And vacancies created by appointee turnover are tied to lower agency performance (Lewis, 2008; O’Connell, 2009).

Given all of these deleterious effects, it is no surprise that agencies with appointed leadership often have more trouble attracting and retaining top-quality careerists who have attractive outside options (Bertelli & Lewis, 2013; Gailmard & Patty, 2007). In general, career bureaucrats are distrustful of political appointees and often believe that greater concentrations of appointees will result in more work being placed on the shoulders of careerists, thus making them more likely to leave for the private sector. For example, in a 2007 survey of state-level career bureaucrats, only 4 percent of respondents agreed with the claim that “increased numbers of political appointees enhance government effectiveness,” and no respondents agreed that “a politically responsive, patronage-based, partisan civil service is superior to a politically neutral, merit-based, impartial career civil service” (Bowman & West, 2009, pp. 24–25).

That these dynamics persist despite higher levels of education and management experience among appointees provides strong evidence that the lack of institutional memory possessed by most appointees (though exceptions do exist) and their inability to credibly commit to long-term planning are proximate causes of lower agency performance (Lewis, 2007). These conclusions are further supported by quantitative studies of agency performance linking longer appointee tenure to higher performance (Gallo & Lewis, 2012; Lewis, 2008).

All of this is important because political appointees are rarely those who actually implement government policy. Rather, this is typically within the purview of careerists, who are overseen by appointees; as such, in order for appointees to be effective in ensuring that policies are implemented in accordance with the wishes of the appointing president—especially in cases where the appointee has been brought in to change or otherwise reorient the policy direction of the agency in question—appointees need to ensure that careerists trust them and otherwise sanction their legitimacy (Carpenter & Krause, 2015; Resh, 2015). This is particularly important because lack of trust in agency leadership is associated with lower levels of agency-level intellectual capital capacity (Resh, 2015), which inhibits the abilities of appointees to ensure implementation of the president’s policy agenda.

Dovetailing back to the previous discussion about political considerations, it must be remembered that trust is a two-way street, and many political appointees begin their tenures distrustful of the careerists within the bureaucracy (Pfiffner, 1987). And presidents often fear “that their appointees will ‘go native’ and become coopted by the departments they head” (Pfiffner, 1983, p. 633), not necessarily an unfounded fear because careerists often select into particular agencies based on their agreement with the agency’s mission; this dynamic often results in ideological alignment between an agency’s mission and the preferences of its careerists, which can lead to initial friction between careerists and appointees sent in with the goal of politicization and control (Clinton et al., 2012; Clinton & Lewis, 2008; Edwards, 2001; Maranto, 1993; Richardson, Clinton, & Lewis, 2017). Although some of the initial friction can abate over time in a cycle of accommodation (Maranto, 1991), this is often modulated by the administration’s—and therefore appointees’—ideological convergence with agency missions, as appointee-careerist relationships tend to be better where convergence is greater (Maranto, 1993). To wit, a 2014 survey of federal executives found that when civil servants view greater ideological divergence between themselves and politically appointed principals, they are less likely to build policy expertise and more likely to exit the agency (Richardson 2019). This strongly suggests that political differences can, over time, translate into diminished agency capacity.

In contrast to civil servants in the American system, those in other systems often appreciate—and desire—the more political nature of appointees. For example, British civil servants often see ministers as effective if they possess “decisiveness and political judgment” (Marsh, Richards, & Smith, 2000, p. 313). Indeed, civil servants view politically astute ministers as necessities because they strengthen the department, and those without political expertise are viewed as liabilities (Marsh, Richards, & Smith, 2000), as effective ministers must “go out and argue for resources” (Rhodes, 2005, p. 12). As with other differences between the American and British systems, this difference is likely due to the greater influence of British ministers in the legislative process than their American counterparts.

Leadership Style and Effectiveness

As mentioned, appointees in the American system who begin their tenures with notions of shaking things up and disturbing the relationship between careerists and appointed leadership often find themselves running less effective agencies because of negative effects on appointee-careerist trust. These dynamics indicate that the leadership style of political appointees has important ramifications for the effectiveness of both individual appointees and agencies more generally.

For example, at the individual level, Park and Rainey (2008) use the 2000 Merit Principles Survey to examine the relationship between leadership style within U.S. federal agencies and several employee-level variables, including job satisfaction, performance, quality of work, and turnover intention. Across all outcome variables, they consistently find that employees benefit when they perceive their supervisors as engaging in transformation-oriented leadership, “where the leader informs the respondent, supports her or his development and personal welfare, emphasizes high standards, and helps poor performers improve” (Park & Rainey, 2008, p. 130). These findings are supported by Wolf (1993), who finds that American agencies led by individuals with greater leadership skills tended to exhibit higher levels of effectiveness.3

These dynamics reinforce the findings of Resh (2015) and others who argue for the importance of trust within organizations. As discussed, Resh argues that trust in agency leadership is important to perceptions of an agency’s intellectual capital. Particularly relevant here is that Resh’s intellectual capital capacity measure includes components that might plausibly be related to leadership style; examples include “whether employees are satisfied with their involvement in decisions that affect their work,” “whether employees are satisfied with the information they receive from management on what’s going on in their organization,” and “whether employees know how their work relates to the agency’s goals and priorities” (Resh, 2015, p. 84). To wit, trust in an agency’s political leadership is positively associated with federal employees’ extrinsic motivation and public service motivation (Ugaddan & Park, 2019).

Collectively, the evidence suggests that appointees who practice a leadership style consistent with fostering trust among employees may find themselves leading higher-performing agencies because of better-motivated employees. This, however, may be at odds with the goals of the appointing president who, presumably, views his or her appointees as important to fulfilling his or her policy agenda and who therefore might choose them based on different criteria from what rank-and-file employees might find optimal. Indeed, career executives are more likely to have priorities and goals more in line with organizational and departmental advocacy positions, whereas political appointees tend to be more focused on policy promotion and career advancement (Brewer & Maranto, 2000). As such, appointees’ leadership styles might also be a proximate cause of the oft-discussed “loyalty–competence trade-off.” Nevertheless, whether leadership style taps into managerial competence or some nebulous notion of non-ideological fealty (or both) remains to be seen.

Unsurprisingly, the importance of bureaucratic leadership is not limited to the United States. For example, in examining South Korean appointees, Jung, Moon, and Hahm (2008) use the 2002 Korean Minister Survey (KMS) and find that transformational leadership styles are strongly associated with higher performance of all types (overall, policy design, policy implementation, and internal management); using the 2007 version of the KMS, Lee, Moon, and Hahm (2010) find that appointees more responsive to their departments (versus being more responsive to the president) are viewed as particularly effective at managing their departments and are also seen as effective agenda setters and policy implementers. However, in the United Kingdom, there is less emphasis on ministers and appointees as leaders, given the dual roles of ministers as both cabinet members and members of Parliament. In this context, civil servants value ministers who are able to effectively work within the legislature and the broader public for the agency’s goals (Marsh et al., 2000). Nevertheless, there exists a copious amount of public administration research—both in the American and comparative contexts—suggesting the importance of leadership styles to agency performance and appointee effectiveness, though the specific type of leadership desired varies by institutional context.

A Need for Better Measures and More Explicit Theory

One thing that should not go unnoticed to the reader is that various definitions of “effectiveness” have been used throughout the course of this article. This is by design, in part because political appointees wear different hats, and effectiveness on one dimension may be orthogonal to effectiveness on another dimension. Alternatively, given the myriad incentives (political, managerial, and the like), it may be that effective bureaucrats from the perspective of the appointing president—or the appointees themselves—are those viewed by the broader civil service or public management scholars as being wholly ineffective. Indeed, there may exist circumstances where the selection of less effective appointees is purposeful and desired (Jo & Rothenberg, 2012).

Within political science, there is a significant amount of research on bureaucratic appointments and the role of the “loyalty–competence trade-off,”—though it is not always referred to as such—in both nominations and as a determinant of agency performance (Edwards, 2001; Hollibaugh, 2015a, 2017; Jo & Rothenberg, 2012). However, the way “loyalty” is often conceptualized is in terms of ideological affinity, which is somewhat different from what might be considered to be personal loyalty. Although operationalizing loyalty in terms of ideological affinity allows models of bureaucratic politics to more easily utilize the standard spatial model and empirical measures of ideology (Bonica, 2013, 2014; Bonica et al., 2015; Hollibaugh & Rothenberg, 2018), there is somewhat of a conceptual mismatch between personal loyalty and ideology. Nonetheless, at the time of this writing there are scholars working on estimating measures of loyalty not so explicitly tied to ideological concerns. Krause and O’Connell (2016) and Ouyang, Haglund, and Waterman (2017) leverage biographical data of appointees in the American system to generate measures of loyalty based on appointee attributes (such as previous elective office and state-level bureaucratic service, among others), and not ideology per se. Scholars of public administration and bureaucratic politics could use these data—in conjunction with extant measures of ideology—to fruitfully examine the loyalty–competence trade-off without conflating personal loyalty and ideological affinity.

But in order to do so, scholars also need accurate measures of competence (broadly related to effectiveness) and theoretical frameworks that distinguish between loyalty and ideology. Previous empirical studies in the American context have often used appointees’ biographical information to estimate individual-level competence, whereas formally inclined scholars have often modeled individual-level effectiveness in terms of its contribution to agency-level performance (Gallo & Lewis, 2012; Hollibaugh, 2017; Hollibaugh et al., 2014; Huber & McCarty, 2004; Krause & O’Connell, 2016; Lewis, 2007, 2008; Ouyang et al., 2017). Measures of agency- or departmental-level performance, on the other hand, have often used government data, such as Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) scores (Gallo & Lewis, 2012; Gilmour & Lewis, 2006; Hollibaugh, 2015a; Lewis, 2007, 2008), budget forecasting accuracy (Krause & Douglas, 2006; Krause, Lewis, & Douglas, 2006), employee perceptions, and others.

Unfortunately, it is arguably the case that neither of these two constructs—individual competence or agency performance—necessarily capture individual effectiveness; rather, this might be best described as the marginal effect of individual appointees on agency- or department-level performance, though such a definition would ignore the notion that, in some cases, “effectiveness” might be negatively related to agency performance, at least as conventionally defined. Future research on this front is needed to better clarify the underlying theoretical mechanisms and empirical operationalizations thereof. Such research should adopt a sound comparative perspective, with comprehensive assessments of why, how, when, and where various arrangements are adopted as potentially suited to contexts and traditions.


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(1.) This is because presidential transitions in the United States are typically characterized by large-scale turnover in the executive branch. For example, Dull and Roberts (2009) present evidence suggesting that some agencies have vacancy rates of over 90% in PAS positions (presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation) during the first quarter of an incoming president’s administration. Furthermore, Chang, Lewis, and McCarty (2001) note that appointees are more likely to resign at the end of an administration.

(2.) Not discussed here is the idea that presidents may want appointees viewed as less competent in the conventional sense, and that reductions in appointee competence might be due to the desire for presidents to control their appointees in an effort to prevent them from “going native” (Pfiffner, 1983), as it will be harder for less-competent bureaucrats to hide their true motives.

(3.) However, both “leadership skills” and “agency effectiveness” were somewhat vaguely defined within Wolf’s (1993) study.