Public servants versus political appointees

On 1 May Coen Teulings ended his seven year term as the director of the Dutch Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (Centraal Planbureau in Dutch, abbreviated as CPB). During his tenure he faced criticism for his affiliations with the Dutch Labor Party, which was alleged to have influenced his role as a policy adviser for the government. At his departure he was evaluated positively in the media, which noted that the Labor Party had frequently been critical of the policy advice given by the CPB.

This reminded me of a paper I had written for a course I followed during my master’s programme at Leiden University, Politics of Bureacracy. For my argument I summarily investigated political appointees in the USA. American federal executive officials are nominated by the president and confirmed by the senate.

Political appointees in the USA

When Leon Panetta (Democrat) was appointed as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama (Democrat), the appointment raised questions if Obama was trying to politicize the CIA; Panetta had no experience in intelligence work. Allegations of partisanship are not new, as even stronger criticism was aimed at the appointment of Porter Goss (Republican), the Director of Central Intelligence under George Bush (Republican).

Lewis (2009) argues (use this link for a PDF behind a paywall but with decent layout) that these political appointments are made for two reasons. They allow the president to control the bureaucracy, with appointees being more responsive to the wishes of the political leaders than public servants. They are also made for patronage, i.e. to reward the members of the president’s party with lucrative positions. He goes on to explain that too many appointees ultimately hurt the performance and control of federal agencies.

Appointees lack the experience of career public servants and stay for short tenures, impeding long term planning. Lower performance in turn makes the agencies harder to control for the president, for example because they are more likely to make mistakes. On the other hand, as outsiders appointees can also give new energy to agencies. It’s a matter of balancing the ratio of appointees to public servants to get optimal agency performance. The USA evidently has far too many appointees, more than 3.500, as opposed to a number between 100 and 200 for other developed countries.

The situation in the netherlands

While I don’t have exact numbers, I assume the Netherlands is in the latter category too. Our General Intelligence and Security Service (Algemene Inlichtingen en Veiligheidsdienst in Dutch) is led by a career public servant. The CPB would even have a serious credibility problem if it would be led by a political appointee, it is imperative that it is an apolitical organization.

I think the difference between the USA and the Netherlands might partially be explained by our different political culture. We have coalition governments instead of the Democrat-Republican duopoly. Even the Balkenende-III cabinet in which the Labor Party didn’t participate had no problem with appointing a vocal economist with Labor Party sympathies like Coen Teulings as head of the CPB.

What I see as a notable exception to the non-political nature of appointments in the Netherlands is the appointment of Piet Hein Donner (Christian Democrats) as vice-president of the Council of State (Raad van State). The cabinet insisted that the procedure was open, but many opposition figures thought it was a farce and Donner’s appointment was predetermined.

The man surely is an expert in law and seems capable for the job, but the appointment had a semblance of politicization to me as well. Just like the CPB advises on economic policy, the Council of State has an important advisory role on law towards the government. All the more reason to make it just as apolitical as the CPB.

Obama and partisanship

What caught my attention regarding the politics of the USA is the appointment of the Republican Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and now Chuck Hagel by Obama. This is different from this discussion of the relationship between the public service and politics because a Secretary of State is always a politician, but related to the partisanship issue. Why not reward a Democrat with position? Obama assures us he chose Hagel because all he cares about is having the right person for the job. Some journalists think it really is a clever plan to screw the Republican Party.

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