[Skip to content]

Public Finance International
News and comment on global public financial management

Political appointees, American style

By Marc Andersen and Paul R. Lawrence | 20 April 2012

Marc Andersen and Paul R. Lawrence explain how a detailed research project into US political appointees uncovered some surprising results about the reality of life in Washington DC’s corridors of power

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Over the past two years, Ernst & Young’s US Government and Public Sector Practice had the unique opportunity to undertake a longitudinal study of American political appointees. In doing so, we interviewed 24 top-level Obama Administration executives three times during their fi rst two years in office. We gained an increased understanding of the American political appointment process, as well as gaining insights into the management challenges facing political appointees.

The outcome of the project was a book, Paths to Making a Difference: Leading in Government, which was recently published in the United States. The appointees we interviewed held positions ranging from the deputy secretaries of major cabinet-level departments to appointees heading agencies such as the Federal Railroad Administration, the US Geological Survey, and the US Patent and Trademark Office. In parliamentary systems, in countries such as the United Kingdom, the officials are career civil servants. In the United States, the deputy secretaries are political appointees. While the United States has a strong senior career civil service consisting of approximately 6,000 individuals spread throughout the federal government, they hold positions two to three levels below those of the top political executives. The success of many federal departments and agencies depends on the ability of political appointees to forge effective working relationships with the senior career civil service.

Based on our interviews with the political executives across the Obama administration, we found that the following pre-conceptions about United States political appointees are, in fact, myths and not reflected in reality:


Myth one: The United States federal government is overridden by political appointees.

Myth two: Most political appointees in the United States federal government lack appropriate experience for their positions.

Myth three: Political appointees in the United States do not get along with the career civil service.


Myth one: The United States federal government is overridden by political appointees.


While there is frequent debate in the United States about the number of political appointees, a close examination of the figures demonstrates that political appointees hold a very small number of positions in comparison to the two million career civil servants in the US federal government. The generally accepted number of political positions in government ranges between 3,000 and 4,000. Only about half, approximately 1,500 positions, hold executive level positions.

The other half comprises Schedule C positions, consisting largely of “special assistant” slots. There are about 1,000 positions that are PAS positions — Presidential appointment with Senate confirmation. There has been increased interest in decreasing the number of positions requiring Senate confirmation because of the cumbersome and lengthy nature of the process, which includes detailed financial disclosures. In addition, the confirmation process has been much more politically contentious.

While the PAS positions receive a lot of attention, a detailed analysis of their placement throughout government reveals small numbers in major departments. For instance, the Department of Defense, with over 700,000 civilian employees, has only 53 PAS positions.The Department of Agriculture, with over 100,000 employees, has 16 PAS positions. In our interviews with political executives running government science agencies, we were surprised to find that the heads of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the US Geological

Survey, and the Energy Information Administration were the only political appointee in their organizations.

“The reality of the United States federal government is that most federal agencies are ‘career’ organizations,” Joe Szabo, Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), described the phenomena to us, “FRA is primarily a career agency with career people in the assistant administrator positions. I didn’t have many appointments to make. The team was here.”


Myth two: Most political appointees in the United States federal government lack appropriate experience for their positions.


The image of the “political hack” dates back to 19th century America where government patronage was king. In 1888, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which professionalized the federal career civil service in the United States and reduced the number of patronage positions in the federal government. Patronage, however, continued to be prevalent in many local governments across the United States into the 20th century. The Progressive movement of the early 20th century moved to eliminate patronage at the local level, just as the Pendleton Act did at the federal level.

Boss Tweed, the leader of patron-filled Tammany Hall in New York City, would not recognize today’s political appointees. All of the 24 political executives we interviewed had extensive and impressive careers that prepared them for their positions in the Obama Administration. David Kappos, Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, came to the position after spending his career in intellectual property at IBM.

David Stevens, former Commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration, came to his position from a real estate and banking background. He had most recently served as President and Chief Operating Officer of Long & Foster Companies prior to joining the Obama Administration. Stevens recounts, “I understood the business. I had lots of experience in the business.” All four of the political executives we interviewed who were running key government scientific agencies had PhDs in their respective fields and were widely respected scientists.

The Obama Administration appeared to have learned the important lessons that its success would depend to a large extent on the quality of its political appointees. The lack of an experienced professional as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during Hurricane Katrina damaged the George W. Bush Administration. There are many agencies across government that must deal with crises, emergencies, and unexpected events.

One such agency is the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). In 2010, a major explosion occurred at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. Fortunately, Joe Main had been selected and confirmed as head of MSHA. Reflecting on the Upper Big Branch explosion, Main says, “I’ve lived through these experiences before, so I knew what to expect … My experiences earlier in my career were crucial.”


Myth three: Political appointees in the United States do not get along with the career civil service.


One of the consistent refrains that we heard throughout our interviews was the admiration and respect of the political executives for the career civil service. Joe Szabo, Administrator of FRA, told us, “The FRA staff have been outstanding. I’ve been impressed with their work ethic. They shatter the myth about the stereotype government worker.” Jonathan Adelstein, Administrator of the Rural Utilities Service, said, “There is a high quality of people here. They are better than I had anticipated.” When asked what surprised him about his time in government, Anthony Miller, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Education, said, “The quality of the career senior staff. They really work hard. They take their job so seriously that they called me up at midnight to make sure we got something right.”

All the executives interviewed also knew the importance of working together with the career civil service. Adelstein told us, “The key to success is a good relationship between political and career employees. Lack of trust is a real problem.” All advised future political executives to get to know their career civil service and to develop close working relationships with them.

We came away from our interviews with an increased understanding of the American political system and the realization that much of the commentary about it is based on long-held myths that, in fact, no longer reflect the reality of 21st century American federal government.


Marc Andersen is Ernst & Young’s Americas Government & Public Sector Leader. Paul R. Lawrence is a Principal in the Advisory Services practice of Ernst & Young LLP (US).

This article first appeared in the March edition of CitIzen Today

Paths to Making a Difference

To understand the challenges of political leadership and how top executives succeed in accomplishing an Administration’s objectives, business in government experts Paul R. Lawrence and Mark A. Abramson present the findings of a two-year study of top political appointees in the Obama Administration. The participants — deputy secretaries and agency heads — provide case studies of how each approaches the management challenges and achieves the mission of their organization. Full of behind-the-scenes insights and practical advice from government political executives on how they face management challenges in real time, Paths to Making a Difference: Leading in Government offers indispensable insights to current and prospective political appointees and everyone interested in understanding how leaders work to make government agencies more effective.

For details about ordering a copy please contact, lauren.verdery@ey.com



Share this article here:


Configure your Portal

Please enter your comments below
Fill out the all the boxes and click the 'Submit comments' button to make a comment on this page
*Comments are added to the bottom of the page. They are moderated and will not be published until approved by the Public Finance International team. They may be edited.