Experiential Learning and Presidential Management of the U.S. Federal Bureaucracy: Logic and Evidence from Agency Leadership Appointments

Author: George A. Krause, Professor of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh

Agency leaders, defined as upper-echelon PAS confirmed political executives, are vital to shaping both the content and character of democratic governance in the United States.  Agency leaders play a prominent role in shaping policy agenda setting and formulation, programmatic planning, and guidelines for administering public policies.  In addition, agency leaders functionally serve as ‘intermediaries’ between political institutions and a bureaucratic organization with a concretely defined policy mission anchored by civil servants.  Unsurprisingly, presidents place considerable thought and effort in selecting individuals to serve in these agency leadership positions.

In our forthcoming AJPS article “Experiential Learning and Presidential Management of the U.S. Federal Bureaucracy: Logic and Evidence from Agency Leadership Appointments”, Anne Joseph O’Connell and I seek to better understand how presidential appointment choices are made for these critical positions in two ways that depart from existing research on this topic.

First, we assert that presidents make these agency leadership appointment choices based on the expected capabilities of these individuals’ regarding (1) loyalty to the administration’s objectives, (2) managerial skills, and (3) policy expertise.  Presidents base these characteristic assessments on a given individual’s ‘dossier’ containing objective biographical data known prior to the nomination decision.

Second, rooted in organizational theories from various cognate social science disciplines, we maintain that individual presidential administration learn as the accrue experience in office.  In turn, we posit that presidents should become better at managing to serve their own policy interests, and hence, this will influence how they select agency leaders in response to changing administrative and political conditions.

Latent trait estimate measures of an agency leader’s loyalty to the appointing president, managerial competence, and policy competence come from our original biographical database containing objective publicly available information on 1372 agency leader appointee observations for 39 U.S. federal agencies (56, including executive offices and bureaus) covering the entirety of five presidential administrations (Jimmy Carter through George W. Bush).

The empirical evidence reveals that with greater experience in office, presidents become:

  • More effective at compensating for uncertainty regarding an appointee’s expected capabilities (Agent Selection Learning);
  • Rely less on mechanism design strategies that mitigate information and policy biases by engaging in counterbalancing appointees’ expected capabilities within the upper-echelons of U.S. federal agencies (Agent Monitoring Learning);
  • Placing a premium on reducing expected capabilities pertaining to competence (managerial and policy) compared to increasing loyalty as a rational response to legislative policy conflict (Common Agency Learning).

Our study offers considerable promise for understanding the prospects and limits of executive authority in the U.S. federal government.  Not only are presidents able to effectively assuage the effects of formal institutional constraints that they encounter by adapting how they wish to select agency leaders, but they also become more skilled at managing loyalty-competence tradeoffs.  This is especially encouraging news for those viewing both enhanced executive branch coordination and the robust exercise of executive authority as means to offset the diminution of power and influence (in the form of declining political capital and reputation loss) that presidents generally experience the longer that they serve in office.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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