Does the US Government have a non-political “head of the public service”?

Home Forums Miscellaneous Does the US Government have a non-political “head of the public service”?

This topic contains 12 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  Mark Hammer 9 years, 2 months ago.

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  • #162339

    David Tallan

    In our parliamentary democracy, here in Canada, we do.

    In the provincial government in which I work, it is the Secretary of the Cabinet, who reports to the Premier. All of the Deputy Ministers (non-political heads of the civil service ministries, who are directly under the political Ministers) report to the Secretary of the Cabinet, in addition to reporting to their respective ministers.

    In our Canadian federal government, a similar role is played by the Clerk of the Privy Council.

    I know that in the States, the President is head of the Executive Branch (as our Prime Minister and Premiers are). But he is very definitely political. Is there a single member of the non-political public service under him to whom the federal government employees report, directly or indirectly.

    Just curious…

  • #162363

    Mark Hammer

    I’m thinking it’s John Berry, head of the Office of Personnel Management.

  • #162361

    Peter Sperry

    Short answer -no. The lines of authority differ somewhat between the various cabinet level departments and independent agencies; but in general, the senior career staff person would be a general deputy assistant secretary who reports to politically appointed assistant secretary,who reports to politically appointed cabinet secretary, who reports to the president. There are almost no career staff who wield the authority of senior career staff in a Westminster system.

  • #162359

    Peter Sperry

    John Berry is a political appointee, as is every head of OPM which actually is a fairly junior member of the sub cabinet.

  • #162357

    Steve Ressler

    Short answer – nope. Would be cool if we did.

    Head of OMB – Office of Management and Budget some could argue might fit that role but that’s a political role. Some would argue OPM – head of human resources but that’s political too.

    Others? In local government, it often occurs in the role of city manager but even that role I find only occurs in populations under say 500,000 people – others?

  • #162355

    Mark Hammer

    Actually, I’m not so sure there is a non-politically-appointed “head of the Public Service” at the federal level in Canada either.

    The Secretary of the Treasury Board (a member of the Cabinet) could be said to have that function, in a sense, but Treasury Board is really just the “employer”, and one of the principle hubs of public service activity. Within TBS, though, there is the Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer ( which used to be a separate agency, as of 2004, but got re-absorbed back into TBS a few years ago (you can see what they’re responsible for on the web-page). I may be wrong on this, but I believe the CHRO is appointed by/through PCO (Privy Council Office), and not politically. They are not an Officer of Parliament.

    The Clerk of the Privy Council certainly provides a report to Parliament on the “state of the federal public service” (… ) and is described as the head of the public service, but does not “lead” the PS as much as translate the desires and policy objectives of Cabinet, and delegate to the PS.

  • #162353

    David Tallan

    I may have been wrong about the Clerk of the Privy Council. I’ve always heard the role described so and have always assumed that it was equivalent to our Secretary of the Cabinet.

    Here in our province, Cabinet Office, led by the Secretary, is like the Premier’s Ministry. It plays a similar role to what you describe, translating the desires and policy objectives of the elected government and delegating to the rest of the public service. But Cabinet Office (unlike the Premier’s Office) is civil service, not political staff. They don’t necessarily change when a new government is elected. The Secretary can change, however, whenever the Premier

    But in the province, the Secretary of Cabinet does lead the public service. As I mention above, deputy ministers report to him (or her) just as much as to their ministers. It seems to me like this might make for stronger incentives to follow central instructions.

    This question occurred to me when reading the Sunlight Foundation’s response to the new White House Digital Strategy. They talk about all of the previous directives which have gone out and, as they report it, have not been fulfilled. If the only one in the chain of command who can hold people to the fire for central edicts is the President (who has a lot on his mind), it’s no wonder that directives can be put aside for more pressing local concerns.

    It sounds like OMB may fill some of that role. Does anyone in line departments actually report to anyone in OMB (in terms of HR reporting relationships) or do they just report up the line in their departments? How much can OMB make people in the federal public service do things?

  • #162351

    David B. Grinberg

    Good question, David. Unfortunately, as other have already noted, the answer is not good. Career civil servants provide their best professional advice to political appointees, which is not always heeded. Many decisions made at the top levels of US Government are “political” with a capital “P”! Presidents, Congressional leaders, Governors, Mayors, etc. — whether Democrat, Republican or Independent — make decisions with an acute political calculus in mind. Having worked as a political appointee in the White House and as a long-time federal career civil servant — in addition to serving a former leader of Congress and working at a global political polling firm — I can unequivocally say that putting politics first is sadly an inherent and perennial problem of US Government, as well as other Governments worldwide. In a Utopian society, elected public servants would put the priorities of the people and country first, above all else, rather than political self-interests. However, generally, even if a Cabinet agency head or other top Presidential appointee listens to the well indended, non-biased, no-partisan advice of long-time career staff, the White House may still nix well intended decisions for political reasons. That’s the system we are mired in here. The best we can hope for is that politicians stop basing decisions on polling results, grandstanding, and political headwinds. It’s been said that the true leadership means leading people where they DON’T want to go. That’s a lesson every elected public official, from Presidents on down, should take to heart. If so, we would all be the better for it — but don’t hold your breath.


  • #162349

    David B. Grinberg

    Having worked a stint at OMB, I can tell you that is has very broad authority and influence over management of Government agencies, agency decision making, and the federal regulatory process. Every fed agency has career staff who report directly to OMB career staff on management and regulatory matters. Agencies must adhere to OMB memos and directives, etc. But, as elsewhere in Government, the career staff report to the political staff who shape the ultimate decision making. Moreover, agencies must promulgate national rules and regulations v ia the OMB-run NPRM process (Notice of Proposed Rule Making). OMB also issues SAPs, official “Statements of Administration Policy” on Congressional legislation. Thus, no agency rule or reg can be approved independently in a vacuum. While OMB is a very small agency, with most staff being non-political career public servants, OMB itself is a de facto part of the White House. OMB is run by Presidential and political appointees, including the OMB Director (a.k.a. White House Budget Director), OMB Deputy Director for Management, Public Affairs Director, Legislative Affairs Director, and other OMB office directors with tremendous influence. While OMB may want to approve agency regulations or report federal budget data based on independent and professional analysis by career folks, the White House usually has the final say. Further, on occasion, I’ve seen White House political staff clash with OMB, which may result in poor public policy decisions. That’s why Washington policy wonks and media types usually cite the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) and GAO (Government Accountability Office), which (arguably) have the most independent authority and provide the most non-partisan critical analysis as Government “watch dogs”. See and

  • #162347

    Peter Sperry

    It may help our Canadian friends if we differentiate between paperwork reporting and HR reporting. Almost all agencies are required to provide OMB with various management and regulatory reports; but the personnel responsible for producing these reports do not report to OMB in a HR sense. They are hired, evaluated, promoted etc. by their agency,not OMB. OMB staff can register complaints or compliments regarding agency staff; but the agency is under no requirement to act on, or even consider, that input.

  • #162345

    Robert Bacal

    Great question. I think the US system is a bit more genuine and transparent regarding politicization down into the public service. In Canada, at least in my experience, the civil service is, in practice, more politicized than the actual system would tell us on paper, so to speak. While one can say that DM’s report to clerk of exec council, the reality is that a DM who cannot please his or her Minister is not likely to be there long, and while DM’s are not routinely changed when governments change, it’s still quite common.

    What IS good about our Canadian system is that the civil and political arms do check and balance each other, which I believe is the point in having it this way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to DM’s and ADM’s about how much they’ve had to rein in Ministers, sometimes from doing things that were blatantly illegal (usually from ignorance). Likewise the power of senior civil service folks is limited by the political process, and in particular in the process of estimates and budgetting, where, not only does the ruling party/cabinet get a crack at them, but so may the opposition parties.

    And just to add complexity, there’s the Civil Service Commissioner, who is different, once again.

  • #162343

    Mark Hammer

    Former Clerk under the prior Liberal government, Alex Himelfarb, has a blog site – – where he posts opinion pieces. Though not intended as a Q&A site, he’s remarkably generous with his time in responding to posts. He may be willing to provide a reply and clarify things.

  • #162341

    Patrick O’Reilly

    Hi David

    Actually, you are right, the Clerk of the Privy Council (federal government in Canada) has three simultaneous titles (and responsibilities): Clerk of the Privy Council, Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Public Service. He (or she) reports to the Prime Minister and is appointed by the Governor in Council on advice of the Prime Minister and serves at the government’s pleasure (ie. they can be easily replaced based on a political will). In practise recent Clerks have served more than one Prime Minister and have not been replaced (immediately) upon a regime change in government.


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