Photo credit: Department of the Treasury
Our government works best when it has a full team of capable and committed individuals serving in career and politically appointed positions. Career executives can bring program and policy expertise from their long familiarity with their agencies which can help them manage programs better and work more effectively with external stakeholders and inside actors. Politically appointed leaders can bring energy, risk-taking and responsiveness into an agency’s decision-making process which can improve performance. When leaders are matched with missions, agendas and teams that align with their distinct approaches and perspectives, they can find success in creating a government that is more efficient, innovative and responsive to the needs of the public.
Since 2001, the Partnership for Public Service has contributed to making government more effective and efficient, investing in the growth and potential of both sets of leaders. Many of our efforts have focused on the need to set up political appointees for success with robust recruitment, expedient placement, leadership development and mission-skills alignment. We have also advocated for rethinking Senate-confirmed positions, favoring alternatives that maximize the unique backgrounds and skills of political appointees and career civil servants while preserving the Senate’s oversight and constitutional role.
|Several dynamics can work against appointees in their public service careers. The number of Senate-confirmed positions, for example, grew from 779 to 1,237 between 1960 and 2016, a 59% increase. This increase—along with challenges in the confirmation process—has resulted in the confirmation times for nominees taking longer every year, resulting in numerous vacancies and key positions held by acting officials.
The number of Senate-confirmed positions grew 59% between 1960 and 2016.
The Partnership detailed this problem it its 2020 report, “The Replacements: Why and How Acting Officials Are Making Senate Confirmation Obsolete.”
An emerging consensus in the academic literature around federal leadership and agency performance shows appointees and career civil servants can work productively together. But studies also have shown that some of the negative trends impacting political appointees and the slow, often dysfunctional Senate confirmation process have a detrimental effect on institutional continuity, performance and employee morale.
|For these reasons, we explored how these challenges impact the current federal workforce—political and career—through the lens of employee engagement in our Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings. This workforce is composed of about 2 million civil servants as well as 4,000 political appointees selected by the president, 1,200 of whom require Senate confirmation.
1,200 out of 4,000 presidential appointees require Senate confirmation.
Across agencies, the ratio of political appointees to civil servants varies widely. Agencies like the Department of Education have a ratio of about one Senate-confirmed appointee to 230 full-time, nonseasonal permanent career civil servants. In contrast, the Department of Veterans Affairs has a ratio around one to 31,000. Overall, presidentially appointed Senate-confirmed positions represent less than 1% of the federal workforce, but they play a critical role in shaping and executing the vision and policies of an administration.
The Best Places to Work rankings offer the most comprehensive assessment of how federal public servants view their jobs and workplaces. The rankings provide employee perspectives on leadership, pay, innovation, work–life balance and a range of other issues. Most importantly, the rankings and accompanying data give leaders a way to measure employee engagement across the federal workforce, as well as at individual departments, agencies and their subcomponents. The rankings alert federal leaders to signs of trouble and provide a roadmap to better manage our government’s most important asset—its employees.
Since 2003, The Best Places to Work analysis has shown that effective leadership remains a key driver of employee engagement. Regardless of the type of leader at the head of an organization, when employees believe leadership generates motivation, encourages integrity, manages fairly, promotes creativity and empowers them, they tend to be more satisfied and committed.
This dynamic has implications for organizational performance. In recent analyses, the Partnership and BCG found that employee engagement had a notable impact on the patient experience at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs and on workforce attrition at agencies across government. The implication of this work is clear: Effective federal leaders, both political and career, have the power to drive engagement and organizational performance.
Senate-confirmed and professional career leaders both have a noteworthy impact across their organizations. The presence, absence and management style of decisionmakers across agencies influences how an organization addresses its goals, the environment and behavior within agencies and even the posture stakeholders take towards that agency.