Do elected officials trust bureaucrats?

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This topic contains 31 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  Andre Castillo 6 years ago.

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  • #146376

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    I try to follow the public administration literature, and one regularly sees research on “trust in government”. The focus is generally public trust in the political machinery, but it occasionally verges into public trust in the bureaucracy as well. Some of it is comparative work, looking at degree of public trust across a variety of nations or political economies or circumstances (e.g., pre-vs-post 09/11). Some of it examines, or at least discusses, the potential role of trust in the buy-in to programs, or simply the functionality of public sector organizations.

    What I don’t recall seeing is any research that examines trust of elected officials in the public administration. That may well be because I simply don’t look in the right places, but I have a sneaking suspicion it simply isn’t out there.

    This is not meant as any sort of cynical inquiry, or any sort of prompt to elicit complaints. Rather, as collaborators, and stakeholders in what we do, I’m curious about a variety of aspects of the relationship that may exist (or may not) between those whom the public elects, and those who carry on in the public administration across elections or changes in leadership. I’m curious about what can lead to adversarial, rather than collaborative, relationships, how to fix them when they’re broken, how to maintain trust when circumstances or leadership changes, etc.

    Do elected officials tend to trust the judgment, intentions, expertise, or competence of bureaucrats?

    What aspects do they trust more, and trust less?

    Does trust in the bureaucracy vary as a function of whether one forms the government or the opposition?

    Is trust between elected officials and the bureaucracy different as a function of jurisdictional level? (federal/national, state/provincial/territorial, municipal/regional/district)

    Does trust, or aspects/dimensions of trust, vary as a function of tenure in an elected role?

    Are some aspects of the bureaucracy, or agencies, trusted more by elected officials than others? (e.g., agencies/services that deal more with straightforward concrete matters like transport, compared to social-issue-focussed agencies)

    What sorts of events can precipitate loss of trust in the bureaucracy by the legislative side?

    Does the electorate play any role in moderating the degree of trust that elected officials have towards the bureaucracy?

    And so on.

    I’m a curious little puppy. Anyone out there able to point me to research or thinking germane to these sorts of concerns? Doesn’t have to be about domestic politicians, either.

  • #146438

    Andre Castillo
    Participant

    I don’t have any links in mind, but I can tell you as a general rule, they certainly don’t.

    I’ll let you know if I find anything.

  • #146436

    Peter Sperry
    Participant

    Paul Light at Brookings has written on this subject. What I have read of his work leans toward the ill informed and Pollyannish, but then, so do most of the people who opine on the subject.

    In my personal experience (Congressional staffer, Schedule C appointee, Career Fed), elected officials have a “trust but verify” relationship with bureaucrats. They start small with issues that will have little or no impact on their reelection. As they gain confidence the bureaucrats will not leak or deliberately undermine their proposals, elected officials will rely more heavily on them. In time, they may form close working relationships with career staff. But if they feel betrayed, even once, they will never trust that bureaucrat again and be much more cautious when dealing with others. Ironically, the career staff I trusted most as an appointee had previously held Congressional or appointed staff jobs with the opposite party. They shared my belief that elections are held to decide public policy, understood the pressure appointees work under and did everything possible to make my job easier not harder. Now that I am in a career position myself, I do my best to emulate their example. Unfortunately, I have also worked with entirely too many bureaucrats who took the opposite approach and set a very bad example. As an appointee, I knew of at least 3 who had the opposing party’s press office on speed dial. One stated in a strategic planning meeting that “public policy should not change just because there had been an election” (in which the party in power had been replaced). I have lost count of the number of times in each of my roles that bureaucrats made very clear their intention to slow walk policies directed by elected officials in anticipation of more favorable decisions from the next administration. As a career fed I make every possible effort to effectively implement the administration’s policies regardless of what I think of them. I understand that I have an obligation to EARN the trust of appointees. As a former appointee I understand they may be slow to extend that trust.

  • #146434

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    Good answer. No references, but just the sort I’m looking for. Thanks.

    What you describe seems pretty normative for anyone involved in something that seems “high stakes” to them, regardless of what their role is.

  • #146432

    Andre Castillo
    Participant

    I agree, well said. That was interesting to read.

    To expand on my earlier comment — I work for a political appointee and his approach is definitely “trust but verify.” I’m sure this applies to many elected officials from my indirect experience with them as well.

    However, I’m also thinking of things like the Department of Justice’s $15 muffin fiasco, where it was assumed by a number of elected officials that DoJ would be so inept as to pay $15 for a muffin that it led to a full-blown investigation (which certainly cost a lot more than $15) that found that the muffin was actually more like $3. Even though the DoJ had already explained that this was the case. Not much trust there.

    I’m also reminded of recent comments by former Speaker Newt Gingrich, when he said that there is enough waste, fraud, and abuse in the Federal Government to pay for the deficit by itself. Really? He is no longer an elected official, but that speaks volumes of his low trust in bureaucrats. Things are expensive and slow here because of overhead — policies, regs, multiple signatures, etc. — that are written into law by who? By Congress!

    If Congress trusted us (or themselves), they would certainly go a little lighter on the regs, especially in HR, IT, and acquisitions. I have tomes of regs, stacked like bibles, that I have to follow on these three subjects to get anything of substance accomplished. Yikes. It just makes you not want to do anything new, because you not only have to read all that, you have to teach it to all your colleagues as well, who I assure you haven’t read all of them themselves. And heaven forbid the tomes change (and get more restrictive!), which they always do. COTR/COR training — I’m looking at you.

  • #146430

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    Well let’s suggest that “trust” is a multidimensional construct, such that party X trusts party Y at different levels in different ways, and that mistrust for some things could coexist with great trust for other things. I trust my kids for some things, but don’t necessarily trust them for others. That’s not so much an expression of hostility or any adversarial relationship, but more an expression of varying degrees of confidence in their strengths and weaknesses. I trust them to be honest, but I don’t trust them to be exquisite judges of when they’re really had enough to eat. I trust in their honesty and good intentions, but I don’t automatically trust in their attention to detail. And so on.

    So, from your own privileged perspective (in the sense that most of us here do not work for or with political appointees, and have little real or informed sense of what their concerns might be), are there areas where elected individuals or political appointees reflexively and authentically trust “the bureaucracy” and bureaucrats?

  • #146428

    Louis Giokas
    Participant

    Frankly, elected officials do not trust bureaucrats. This is quite justified. You mention above judgement, intentions, expertise ad competence. This is not the trust issue.It is up to the elected official to set policy. Many times, the bureauracy attempts to thwart those policies. This is well documented. I was re-reading Henry Kissingers memoirs recently for an article I was working on. The motivation for their backchannel diplomacy was that the bureauracy in the State Department was actively trying to thwart their efforts. It is a good thing that they were successful in their efforts.

    There are other reasons for elected officials to be distrustful that have nothing to do with policy. Any bureauracy (government or business) tends to be self centered. Calls by people who have experience in the commercial world to apply methods such as six-sigma to the bureauracy are just a recent symptom. This requires, by the way, completely changing (or throwing out) the current civil service system. I live in the Chicago area, and we see terrible waste and corruption in the city. On the other hand, the schools in the suburb I live in are doing very well, while spending perhaps two thirds of what they spend in the city. I guarntee you that our facilities are better, and our teachers and administrators are well paid.

    A related issue is the interplay between elected officials, bureauracys and fuding can raise issues. We also have in the Chicago area Argonne National Labs (ANL). This is a national energy research facility. I have several friends and neighbors that work there. Many are PhD’s. I ca tell you that they do a lot of research that is not energy related. When I discuss this with them they become defensive, and for good reason. We have lots of energy issues that could be addressed by basic research, but we are not using the resources we have. One of my neighbors was working on fuel cells. Last I heard, he was looking at the river bed under bridges. This is not his fault or choice. I am sure it is a way to keep the group he is in employed. On the other hand, this is another example of the bureauracy not addressing the issues that face the country, but working to keep funded. This ia a big mess and it requires a whole rethink of the system.

  • #146426

    Raymond Clark
    Participant

    I work in the Air Force Budget and Appropriations Liaison Office and have over 10 years experience in working with the Congress. Our politicians have a healthy distrust of public institutions which is unfortunitely well deserved. The executive and legislative branches were designed to be distrustful of each other as mechanism to encourage active checks and balances between the 2 branches. This is true at every level: National, state, and local.

    In answer to your specific questions, our political leaders do appreciate the expertise of many of our government employees, but do distrust their motives and competence. (note: expertise doesn’t necesarily equate to competence). The view of the bureaucracy is consistnent no matter which political party controls the white house. Of course, republicans tend to be less trustful of “big” government, however both parties have a healthy distrust. I believe trust in the bureaucracy tends to wane the longer a member of congress serves. This is why I am not a proponent of term limits. Term limits shift power from the legislative to the executive branch because the executive is then able to outmanuveur inexperienced legislators. Experienced legislators are able to better provide the level of oversight required to keep the executive in check. Elected officials do tend, in my experience, to trust the compentence of the Defense Department in the conduct of operations, i.e., the “tip” of the spear forces. But, they distrust those in the pentagon. Failure in the execution of appropriations with regards to high dollar acquisition programs are a prime source of distrust and its frankly well desearved. The DoD hasn’t been a good stuart of the people’s money in that regard. The electorate does have an impact on the competence of the bureaucracy. They do demand competent services and expect fair as reasonable use of the taxpares money. This has been clear with the development of the tea party for example. Voter demands for such is on the rise.

    My thoughts…great topic.

  • #146424

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    The motivation for their backchannel diplomacy was that the bureauracy in the State Department was actively trying to thwart their efforts. “

    I suspect this is a recurring phenomenon, regardless of the era or agency/initiative/jurisdiction. Granted, there is a tendency in many human endeavours to respond to requests with “But it’s soooooo hard!” [insert adolescent whining here], deferring to protocol, or an indignant “That’s not how WE do things!”. But one can imagine that there can also be strong substantive differences of opinion between those within the bureaucracy and those at the political level, wherein the one side can perceive the other as trying to subvert them.

    The bureaucracy IS sworn to serve the government of the day, but not at the cost of the public interest. The legislative side is accountable to the electorate to follow through on platforms and promises made, but also not at the cost of the public interest.

    So how do we get these folks on the same page? Why on earth should one side be attempting an end run around the other? Even if the end-run is in attempting to serve the public interest, seems to me the need for an end-run is not serving that same public interest.

    That’s a big part of why I ask “What is it that they DO trust us for/on?”. For me, the public interest is served by building on those areas where trust already does exist. And, lest the point be lost in the mélée, that trust should be bidirectional, not just the responsibility of the political side OR the bureaucracy.

  • #146422

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    And an excellent reply.

    Failure in the execution of appropriations with regards to high dollar acquisition programs are a prime source of distrust and its frankly well deserved.”

    In your view, is that mistrust driven by expectations that frugality will not be pursued with the same rigor when dollar-values are high? (i.e., if the budget is big enough then it doesn’t matter if I’m off by a few million here and there) that the risk of malfeasance and misappropriation increases? that “big” bureaucracies are simply the wrong place to send big cheques to because too much goes to administration? that big budgets create too many degrees of freedom for the expenditures to end up diverging from the policy objectives? all of the above? none of the above?

  • #146420

    Peter Sperry
    Participant

    “The bureaucracy IS sworn to serve the government of the day, but not at the cost of the public interest. The legislative side is accountable to the electorate to follow through on platforms and promises made, but also not at the cost of the public interest.”

    Problems arise when the two groups have different views of what constitutes the public interest. If bureaucrats, or any one else, wants to be the final arbiter of that question; they should pick up the nominating petion forms from their local elections office and start campaigning. Because as long as our governments want to claim to be democracies, only the people holding certificates of election get to determine what is or is not in the public interest.

  • #146418

    Raymond Clark
    Participant

    Federal dollars are like air to an agency: It will expand to fill the space provided. If you give an agengy money, they will spent it irregardless of whether or not it is prudent to do so. This is where we got to in the DoD. Congress showered the department with procurement dollars in the 90s, ergo we went from a $15 million fighter (F-15) to a $180 million aircraft (F-35). Some of this is due to the power of the iron triangle (business, DoD, congress).

  • #146416

    Raymond Clark
    Participant

    I disagree here. Congress makes the laws (to include appropriations bills), and the executive “executes” those laws. The bureaucracy is responsible to execute the budget as provided by the Congress. There is no sworn requirement of the bureaucracy to “monitor” the public interest. That is not their role. That is the role of the Congress. There are mechanisms for the bureaucracy to revise and petition the Congress to make changes if they believe certain actions are counter to what they believe, however the ultimate responsibility lies with Congress.

  • #146414

    Peter Sperry
    Participant

    This is what I was trying to say. Members of Congress hold certificates of election, therefore, they ultimately decide what is or is not in the public interest.

  • #146412

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    You are presupposing that the elected official has a more realistic sense of the practical implications of policy than the seasoned bureaucrat who is a subject matter expert. It is in the public interest for the bureaucrat to provide “fearless advice”, and for the elected official to listen to it thoughtfully. That doesn’t mean they have to heed it, since plenty of “experts” can be too all easily rooted in the past.

    But if I may reveal my own biases for the moment, I often see elected officials charging in like the proverbial bull in a china shop, with all sorts of ideas and policies that seem great on paper, and are eminently laudable goals that most would share, but with little realistic sense of how things actually work. Sometimes the intended policies can actually work against the stated goals, because the details (which the bureaucrat may have much greater familiarity with) have not been fleshed out.

    The irony is that the bureaucrat might do a fabulous job of serving the objectives of the elected official, by being more knowledgeable about the realities and details, but the official does an end-run around them because they mistake the attention to problematic details as an objection to the goals.

  • #146410

    Andre Castillo
    Participant

    Good point! And I don’t even think this is fair to blame on the bureaucracy. Congress does not like it when they give us money to achieve an objective and we refuse to spend the money. If Congress in the past had wanted us to not spend the money they give us they would have provided incentives for that kind of behavior. But Congressmen have specific ideas of what government should be doing and they use the power of the purse to do so.

  • #146408

    Peter Sperry
    Participant

    @Mark — To turn the tables just a bit, do you see a similar or differnt dynamic in Canada? I wonder if a parliamentry legislature which is more closely aligned with the executive branch might be more trusting of it. Also, I get the impression that Canadian public employee union are less ideological than their U.S. counterparts. I know the Brits have turned the distrust between elected and career officials into a fairly funny comedy series (Yes, Minister). Do have the same situation in your government?

  • #146406

    Raymond Clark
    Participant

    Of course this happens, but after providing their “fearless advice” it is not then their role to end-run no matter the consequences. In the case of loss of property or life, injunctions can be made, but other than that…we execute faithfully and to the best of our ability whether we agree or not.

  • #146404

    Raymond Clark
    Participant

    Ah, mis-interpreted your point them.

  • #146402

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    I shouldn’t devote too much time to this thread today (I *do* have this thing called a job), but you should recognize that where Secretaries within your system serve at the pleasure of the President but are not themselves elected officials, Cabinet Ministers within the Westminister system are generally elected members. I guess the nearest equivalent would be if 97% of your secretaries of Labour, Housing, Defense, Environment, etc., were Congressional representatives. Ministers can be appointed from outside, but it tends not to happen very often.

    Not that political appointees are not beholding to those who put them there, or on the same page, ideologically, but they might not be quite as driven to act in a manner that gets them and their party re-elected. That’s speculation on my part, though, not necessarily reality.

    Perhaps one manner in which differences between our respective systems might emerge is that cabinet, being made mostly up of elected MPs, does not automatically assure that whomever is the minister of X is a SME in that area, since cabinet, and your talent pool, is comprised of whoever managed to get elected. Within your system, it is quite conceivable that any given bureaucrat may have a difference of opinion with the Secretary of their agency, but the working assumption is that whomever was appointed as Secretary has some expertise in that area. Within the Westminister system, unless you get lucky, its potluck. You may get a minister who is up to speed (particularly if it is a re-elected government and they retain the same portfolio), you may get one who is familiar with cognate areas and a fast learner, and you may get someone who requires training. Note as well, that it is common practice, and component of succession planning, to move some individuals from portfolio to portfolio, such that they become well-rounded and groomed for a potential role as PM. Under your system, there is no underlying assumption that the Secretary of Labour will be shifted over to Secretary of Defense, to make them more electable 3 years hence.

    All this aside, one assumes they are all eager learners. The handicap they all come with, unless former bureaucrats themselves, is that they tend to be largely unfamiliar with how the bureaucracy works.

  • #146400

    Peter Sperry
    Participant

    Interesting. Hopefuly some of the other Govloopers working in a Westminster system will add their views.

  • #146398

    Robert Bacal
    Participant

    Mark, maybe we should distinguish between trusting the bureaucracy, and trusting the person of contact for the bureacracy the elected official deals with. The first doesn’t matter that much, at least in my experience in Canada. Elected officials federally and provincially don’t interact with the bureacracy except primarily through the Deputy Minister, so the relationship of the DM to the minister is the one important one.

    As for some of the other comments, I see a whole lot of stereotyping here. In Canada, the elected official (minister), and Deputy have a relationship where the Minister, in effect has to rely on the DM, and ADM’s. And it’s an interesting relationship because the DM in a department doesn’t report to the Minister, and almost always outlasts him or her. Politicians come and go, but DM’s tend to stay.

    The idea of an independent civil service is critical to our canadian democracy, and I’ve seen little of the politicization of the civil service in Canada, that people seem to talk about happening in the USA.

    At least in Canada, senior civil servants will derive no benefit for embarrassing or blocking the ideas of elected officials, just because. It’s the opposite. I know of many stories where senior civil service execs have gone out of their ways to save humiliation for the political arm of government. I’ll share some of them, but frankly I’d discouraged at the lack of dialogue on govloop.

  • #146396

    Robert Bacal
    Participant

    I know one or two Deputy Ministers in Canada who, having offered their strong opinions as to the disasters that would ensue if the political policy was executed according to the way the Minister insisted, put their jobs on the line, by drawing lines in the sand, and saying if you go that route, you’ll do it without me.

  • #146394

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    That’s an important distinction between “the bureaucracy” (which is of a more symbolic form) and individual bureaucrats.

    Somebody help out a naive Canadian, and tell me what the average tenure is in the role of Undersecretary? How long do people typically stay in those jobs? I’m curious as to whether that moderates trust by elected officials in “the bureaucracy”.

  • #146392

    Robert Bacal
    Participant

    All good points. Ministers can be amazingly naive, even stupid, not only about the bureaucracy, but about their own roles in government, and even how government works.

    In one situation, we actually had to send an ADM along with the Minister during the budget/estimates presentation, because the Minister in question kept using incorrect and inflamatory wordage. He had been advised, for his own good, to use the proper accurate language, but “forgot”, so the next time the ADM had to whisper to him.

    In another situation, a Minister walked into one of the departments in his purview and the receptionist was a little slow in responding. The Minister bellowed at her, “Do you know who I am?” and then fired her. Problem was he didn’t have the power to fire her — not a clue about how anything worked. The civil service quieted things down, as much to protect the Minister from humiliation as any other reason.

    Finally, a more senior politician “put in a word” when his wife applied for a job in government in another department. Now, what SHOULD have happened is that a civil servant should have politely told the politician to fergettabout it. Nobody did. Wife got hired. Word got out about his improper influence, and big scandal ensued. Irony was the wife was probably well qualified in the first place. result? no winners.

  • #146390

    Andre Castillo
    Participant

    Interesting.

    Although my examples are different, in my U.S. gov experience that behavior (where bureaucrats look out for politicians/politicos) is par for the course. Almost (almost!) no bureaucrat wants to go up against someone as powerful as a politician or political appointee. Plus you often feel bad for the guy/gal — and after all, it’s our job to help.

    I would venture that the divergence in appearance is that in a government as large as ours the exceptions make the headlines and are better remembered.

  • #146388

    Peter Sperry
    Participant

    If you are talking about U.S. Undersecretaries, they tend to stay 2-4 years or more if the President is reelcted. Our major appointments are: Cabinet Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Undersecretary, and Assistant Secretary. These are all presidentially appointed, Senate confirmed positions. Other Senate confirmed appointments include CFO of major Departments and various heads of independent agencies. In addition there are “Schedule C” appointees who do not require Senate confirmation. These can vary from personal secreatries for Senior appointees to senior advisors and chiefs of staff.

    Robert is correct that most of the direct interaction between bureacrats and elected officials takes place through the appointees and often through the Schedule C level. Probably one of the most critical relationships is between the Assistant Secretaries (senate confirmed appointee) and the General Deputy Assistant Secretaries (Senior Cival Service). Another critical relationship would be between the Chief of Staff of the Committee of Jurisdiction (serves at the plaesure of the Congressman or Senator who chairs the commitee) and the senior cival servent in the department or agency.

    In many ways, the most interesting assignments are the Schedule C special assistant and senior advisors. You are usually working at the intersection of the appointee and the civil service world and see the best and worst of both. It is often a trial by fire but can be one of the best learning experiences a public servent can have.

  • #146386

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    I tried unsuccessfully to find it, but couldn’t and have to scuttle off to a meeting this evening, so I’ll just have to tell you about it. There was a paper posted at the Brookings Institution website over the summer, noting the significant proportion of political appointments that remained unfilled well into the middle of the last few presidents’ terms, largely as a result of the vetting process, and partisan bickering. It straddled both Republican and Democrat administrations and was quite disheartening. We’re talking hundreds of positions that went unfilled for several years. Of course, what it partially suggests is that many political appointees at the levels Peter describes enter into the job already mistrusted by many in Congress.

  • #146384

    Robert Bacal
    Participant

    The more I read, the more it jumps out exactly HOW different the Canadian and American systems are, and how different the relationships are. I think, in Canada, the civil service is much “farther away” from the political arm than in the USA. It would be a pretty strange idea in Canada to have to have parliament confirm the hiring of any civil servant, even at the highest level.

    That’s because the Canadian lines of authority for the political arm, and the civil service arm don’t intersect. (or at least, that’s how I recall it).

  • #146382

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    Without wishing to detract from the more generic focus here, there are several positions within the Canadian federal bureaucracy, referred to as Agents of Parliament. While generally nominated by the Privy Council, and appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office, their appointment is effectively signed off by the leaders of all parties in Parliament, and they report to Parliament. You can read more here: http://parl.gc.ca/parlinfo/compilations/OfficersAndOfficials/OfficersOfParliament.aspx

    That said, in comparison to the list that Peter provided, it IS pretty dang short.

  • #146380

    Steve Richardson
    Participant

    Very well said, Mark.

  • #146378

    Steve Richardson
    Participant

    Spending is an outcome for Congress, and earmarks are the tip of the iceberg.

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