282420343_2bbc3a57b5During the 2008-9 academic year, we’re working with a research team examining the role of president-appointed, Senate-confirmed federal agency administrators – the roughly 350 senior-level appointees scattered around the American government. Here is a scholarly paper on the subject (under review). Several graphics from this paper describe some basic patterns in appointee turnover, tenure and vacancies – three aspects of what we term appointee continuity. Here’s a copy of our recent op-ed in The Hill, “How Congress Should Repair the Vacancies Act”.

The goal of the appointees project is to inform public deliberation about the role of presidential appointees in the American political system and contribute to debate about proposed reforms to the appointments process in federal government agencies.

1)  Claims that political appointees negatively impact the performance of public sector organizations are a time-worn tradition in the American system. Recent controversies involving appointees in DOJ, CIA, FEMA, HHS, NASA, EPA, and other federal agencies brings new attention and salience to these concerns.

2) Criticism of political-appointments typically centers on two related problems: continuity and competence.

Continuity – The presidential appointment authority has developed over time to regulate turnover among agency administrators deemed vital to the maintenance of our constitutional system. One critique of rules governing appointments holds that they disrupt the continuity of agency leadership, as a consequence of appointee turnover, short tenure, and position vacancies.

Competence – A related problem questions the competence of appointee leadership. Defining competence can be difficult and politically contentious, but problems of competence typically focus on attributes such as experience, skill, influence, credentialing, and professional reputation.

3)      Advocates and politicians have proposed a range of reforms to the existing system:

Reducing the number of appointed positions;

Streamlining processes for vetting, nominating, and confirming appointees;

Establishing minimum professional qualifications for appointees;

Creating fixed-term appointments, like the five-year term for commissioners under the 1994 law making SSA an independent agency.

As a consequence of controversy over FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina, for example, both 2008 major party presidential candidates promise to apply minimum professional qualifications in appointing the FEMA Director; one promises to establish a fixed 5-year term for the position.

4)      Discussion of appointee performance rests largely on anecdote. Little systematic research examines the impact of appointee continuity and competence across federal government agencies. Recent work by David Lewis (2008) makes important contributions in this area, linking appointee positions and length of tenure to program performance. Lewis’s findings are consistent with a substantial body of research on executive tenure in a variety of private organizations.

5)      This project makes two contributions to scholarship and policy deliberation:

Contributes to scholarship examining hypothesized influence of appointee continuity and competence on performance of federal government agencies;

Develops innovative approaches for enhancing transparency and spreading knowledge about the role of appointees in the American political system.

Linking appointees to agency performance presents a number of difficulties. Setting aside for now other methodological details, our research develops novel indicators based on three central concepts:

Continuity – In addition to tenure and turnover, ours will be the first systematic analysis of appointee vacancies on agency performance.

Competence – By coding a uniquely comprehensive collection of appointee biographies available in electronic format through the Library of Congress, our analysis will include attributes such as education and credentialing, agency and professional experience, age, political orientation, and affiliations.

Performance – The measurement of agency performance is inherently contentious. Lewis (2007, 2008) employs OMB’s Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) and results from the Federal Human Capital Survey. Our research will compare these indicators with professionally defined indicators of agency performance, such as linking CFO appointees to the likelihood agencies receive unqualified audit opinions under the CFO Act (1990).

7)      We aim to enhance public understanding about the vital role appointments play in the administration of federal policies using innovative approaches extending the reach of our empirical research.

Policy & Administration – Our research team is maintaining a blog which, in part, examines appointments in the context of a new presidential administration. Topics will include: nomination/confirmation news; legal context; historical development; agency and individual profiles, and visual representation of data on appointee turnover and vacancies.

Visual Presentation – Employing innovative visual representations, we aim to present appointee turnover and vacancies data in a form that is compelling and useful to policy-makers and the public.[1]

Public Data – We will make a replication dataset available on the Internet.

Simply put, public knowledge about the role of appointees in American governance is critically lacking. As recent controversy over the removal of appointed U.S. attorneys in DOJ illustrates, the rules and expectations governing the appointments process can be obscure even to close observers. Not the first time this presidential administration has run afoul of agency professionals, this case gained prominence through a confluence of motivated Congressional committee chairmen and a profession (lawyers) that knew how to fight back. Among the consequences, not only an attorney general’s resignation, but a broad disruption in the DOJ’s senior ranks and, we suspect, a measurable impact on organizational performance. There are many ideas to “fix” the appointments process, this research project aims simply to add a measure of transparency and understanding.


[1] A variety of new web-enabled data visualization techniques are being employed to highlight obscure but important aspects of governance such as government spending and earmarks. A notable example of the capacity web-enabled data presentation to effect change in government is OMB’s USA Spending (http://www.usaspending.gov/) mandated under the Federal Funding, Accountability, and Transparency Act. Sunlight Labs, Inc. has contributed significantly to work in this area with its “Open House Project” a web-based initiative (http://www.theopenhouseproject.com/) and projects like the visual representation of congressional earmarks (http://sunlightlabs.com/visualizingearmarks/).

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