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Op-Ed: CEO Obama

Jan. 12, 2009, 11:02 AM

With all the focus on the president-elect’s views about the Burris appointment and the economic stimulus, we forget that Barack Obama is about to assume responsibility as chief executive of an organization that employs close to 2 million civilian employees. Obama’s fortunes as president will depend in large part on his success at taking charge of the machinery of government.

The primary means by which presidents assume leadership of the executive branch and independent agencies is through personnel. There are about 3,500 appointees selected by the president to lead the mass of federal employees. How Obama selects and charges these appointees will influence his management of economic recovery, prosecution of wars, health care and education policy. How should he think about staffing for success?

First, Obama must recognize that the last administration’s appointee map should not govern where he places his own appointees. Presidents have discretion over the persons that fill existing appointee positions and the number of appointed positions. The last administration added appointed positions to enhance presidential control, but also satisfy patronage demands. In many agencies, the career professionals serving there would do an excellent job in the top positions. These career professionals have served loyally through different administrations and have a lifetime of experience and expertise to qualify them. Agencies currently overloaded with appointees could be equally responsive and more effective with fewer appointees. My own research shows federal agencies with fewer appointees in the management team perform better on a variety of different measures.

Second, Obama must trust the continuing professionals who work in government. Surveys of former presidential appointees, both Republicans and Democrats, consistently reveal a pattern of appointee suspicion of career professionals followed by admiration. Presidential appointees brought in from outside government, particularly those brought in to head important new initiatives, come in believing that career professionals are attached to the last administration or simply resistant to change. What they predictably come to learn over time is that top career professionals get into their positions through their ability to do their job well, with people from both parties. Presidential administrations need appointees to provide energy, accountability and leadership to the continuing government. Some career professionals do cause problems for a new administration, but the extent of resistance to new presidents is regularly overestimated.

Third, Obama’s team should prioritize smartly and prioritize. President Reagan focused on the “key 87” positions for economic policy first. Other presidential personnel officials speak of the importance of identifying “choke points” in government and filling them first and with the best people. This advice is smart as far as it goes. The danger, however, lies in the positions that are not on the president’s agenda. My own research shows that this is part of the problem with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA is not on the president’s agenda unless there’s a crisis, so FEMA is regularly filled with second or third tier political types who were not equipped for their jobs. These patronage posts are the most likely to embarrass the administration through tawdry scandals and poor management which can lead to disastrous results, as in the case of FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

With the momentous issues facing the Federal Government, staffing the administration effectively is vital. Let’s hope CEO Obama has learned from the experience of past presidents.

David E. Lewis is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and author of The Politics of Presidential Appointments: Political Control and Bureaucratic Performance (Princeton University Press, 2008). This opinion piece was originally published in The Tennessean Jan. 11, 2009.

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