Politics & Elections Jun 1, 2021
Civil Servants Often Work for Administrations They Disagree with Politically. How Does This Affect Their Job Performance?
While the benefits of insulating career bureaucrats are clear, new research explores whether there are downsides, too.
When a new president comes into office, there’s generally lots of attention paid to who will be appointed to key cabinet posts. Yet, the vast majority of federal employees live outside of this spotlight and are purposely insulated from the impact of changing administrations.
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These are the career civil servants whose long-term job security does not depend on political affiliation. They are, by design, shielded from attempts to fire them by administrations with whose politics they disagree.
Insulating lower-level bureaucrats from the tendency of incoming administrations to install political loyalists in senior positions has a number of well-established benefits. For one, it ensures that the machinery of government won’t sputter to a halt after every election. It also makes it possible for federal departments to hire and promote people based on their expertise, not their ideology. And doing away with this system would effectively gut whistleblower protections (since anyone of the opposite party than the president would be loathe to speak up about wrongdoings for fear of being fired), making oversight of government more difficult.
But this practice also ensures that every administration will inevitably employ people who oppose its own objectives. What is the cost of this “political misalignment”?
That’s the question that Kellogg professors Jörg Spenkuch and Edoardo Teso set out to answer—but not because they doubted the wisdom of insulating bureaucrats from political interference. “There are obvious benefits to that system that are well documented,” Spenkuch says. “We just wanted to know if there were any hidden costs, too.”
To find out, Teso and Spenkuch, along with Guo Xu, of the University of California Berkeley, gathered data on the political preferences of government bureaucrats. They used this information to examine how much, and how often, political misalignment occurs among career civil servants in the U.S. federal bureaucracy. Then they measured how procurement officers—the bureaucrats in charge of overseeing government contracts—were affected by that misalignment. Their thinking was that if these procurement officers were unhappy with an administration’s politics, their performance might suffer while that administration was in office.
Indeed, the researchers discovered that between 2004 and 2019, cost overruns on these contracts were eight percent higher than average when a procurement officer identified with a different political party than the administration.
“In relative terms, you perform worse when you’re not politically aligned with the people at the top,” says Teso, an assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences. And since these misalignments are unavoidable in a bureaucratic system that insulates civil servants, “that suggests there is a cost, along with all the benefits.”
Bureaucracies are peculiar organizations.
“In many ways, they’re like companies, in the sense that there are written rules and a well-defined hierarchy. Orders come from the top, and people lower down the food chain are expected to implement them,” says Spenkuch, an associate professor of managerial economics and decision sciences. “In other ways, they’re very unlike companies, because typically, low-level bureaucrats have much more job protection than low-level workers.” An organization with this particular set of features is called a “Weberian bureaucracy,” after German sociologist Max Weber, who first described it in the early twentieth century.
The researchers found the U.S. federal government to be an ideal setting for studying the pros and cons of a Weberian bureaucracy. In response to media requests under the Freedom of Information Act, the government had already released personnel records on more than a million federal bureaucrats between 1997 and 2019. The researchers matched the names in these records against a nationwide database of registered voters assembled by L2, a nonpartisan firm that sells such information to political campaigns, activist organizations, and academics. That database included voters’ self-identification as Democrats or Republicans; for voters in states where affiliation is not recorded, L2 uses machine learning to guess at party affiliation. (The authors assigned the “independent” label to any bureaucrats who weren’t categorized in the data as a Democrat or Republican.)
By merging the L2 data with the government personnel records, Teso and Spenkuch created a first-of-its-kind database of partisan leanings among contemporary civil servants.
“These two data sets have been in the public sphere for quite a while, but we’re the first to actually combine them,” Spenkuch says. “You have to do that in order to study the kinds of questions we’re interested in.”
The researchers began by using these data to examine just how “Weberian” the federal bureaucracy actually was.
“I expected a tsunami of change in political appointees at the top of every administration, with small ebbs and flows among the bureaucrats. We did find the tsunami, but there are virtually no ebbs and flows.”
— Jörg Spenkuch
First they established that the bureaucracy demonstrated a markedly non-Weberian feature: new administrations indeed cleaned house and distributed high-level government appointments to friendly partisans.
When Democrats took over from Republicans, the average number of Democratic political appointees increased by 152 percent; when Republicans took power, the number of Republican appointees increased by 504 percent. Meanwhile, the researchers also found that career civil-service employees were extremely insulated from these partisan cycles: in 22 years, the proportions of federal bureaucrats identifying as Democrat and Republican stayed nearly constant.
In other words, the U.S. government is non-Weberian at the very top but textbook Weberian at the bottom. “I expected a tsunami of change in political appointees at the top of every administration, with small ebbs and flows among the bureaucrats,” Spenkuch says. “We did find the tsunami, but there are virtually no ebbs and flows.”
Teso adds that “you could take this as evidence that, for the most part, the system is working how it’s supposed to.”
But within that bureaucratic stability, the researchers found that Democrats were overrepresented in nearly every department compared with Republicans—and especially in senior positions. Between 1997 and 2019, Democrats made up about half of all federal bureaucrats, while Republicans wavered between a third and a quarter. (The remainder were independents.) Even the most Republican-leaning departments—Agriculture and Transportation—had a nearly even split of Democrats and Republicans working in them.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the government bureaucracy has a liberal bias, the researchers say. Instead, at least some of the imbalance between Democrats and Republicans can be explained by differences between Democratic and Republican bureaucrats.
For example, Democratic bureaucrats are 8 percentage points more likely than Republicans to have a post-graduate degree, which may make them more likely to be both hired and promoted within a merit-based system. Democrats are also less likely to quit over time: after ten years, they’re 4.5 percent more likely to still be part of the civil service than Republicans or independents.
The Cost of Political Misalignment
The researchers’ next step was to investigate whether these political leanings resulted in performance deficits when the opposing party was in power. In other words, if you’re a Republican civil servant in a Democratic administration (or vice versa), do you perform worse at your job?
The researchers chose procurement officers as a test case because their output was more straightforward to measure than that of other bureaucrats. “Procurement officers have a very tangible outcome they’re in charge of,” Teso explains. “For each government contract they’re in charge of, if it goes over budget, that’s typically considered a bad outcome.”
In some years, a procurement officer’s politics would be aligned with the administration’s; in other years, they wouldn’t. By comparing the relative size of the cost overruns for the same officers over time, the researchers could see how the officer’s job performance changed in relation to those ideological shifts.
Indeed, the authors found that procurement officers oversaw more cost overruns when serving an administration with which they disagreed politically. Under these circumstances, overruns were about eight percent higher than usual.
At first glance, this doesn’t look like a drastic difference.
“Think of it this way: if the government writes a contract for $100, it usually ends up paying $112. But if the procurement officer isn’t politically aligned with the administration, it ends up being $113,” Spenkuch says. “That looks like a nudge. But government procurement is a huge chunk of the U.S. economy. If you extrapolate that nudge across the entire government procurement sector, then we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars.” To Teso and Spenkuch, this is evidence that Weberian bureaucracies—despite their numerous important advantages—also have a tangible downside.
The authors examined the data for a potential explanation. Perhaps politically misaligned bureaucrats were put in charge of more complex contracts, which would be harder to keep on-budget. Or perhaps bureaucrats felt less incentivized to seek promotions and thus didn’t work above and beyond what was expected of them during administrations they didn’t agree with politically. But after analyzing the data, Teso says, “we don’t find that that’s the case.”
Instead, the authors believe that a “morale effect” may be to blame for the lower performance of these civil servants. They looked at the results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey between 2006 and 2019, which measured how much bureaucrats agreed with statements like “The work I do is important” and “I’m willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done.” When the bureaucrats were aligned with the politics of the administration, their agreement with these statements rose significantly.
“That’s kind of suggestive of what may be going on, that these procurement officers are less motivated to perform well when they feel they’re not aligned with the mission of the organization,” Teso says.
The authors believe their work has potential implications for nongovernmental organizations, as more companies aim to present a coherent political point of view to the public, not just deliver products and services. Spenkuch points out the fact that some large companies have taken “a very strong stand” on recent changes to voting laws in Georgia, while other companies have come under fire for failing to do so.
“Within any company of a certain size, the employees are going to have different political viewpoints, and not all of them are going to line up with the company,” he says. “To what extent do those politics influence workplace performance? Nobody knows yet. But our research on the federal bureaucracy suggests that maybe something similar is going on in the private sector—we definitely need more research along these lines.”
John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, technology, and design topics. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Spenkuch, Jorg, Edoardo Teso, and Guo Xu. 2021. “Ideology and Performance in Public Organizations.” Working paper.
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