Civil servants report that the Trump Administration posed an existential threat to expertise in the federal bureaucracy.
The question of the proper role of unelected officials in policymaking in a representative democracy goes back as far as representative democracy itself. In the United States, the field of public administration has been debating it since Woodrow Wilson published his classic study of administration in 1887. President Wilson’s work spurred debates about the “politics-administration dichotomy,” the idea that elected officials set policy and bureaucrats who work for them implement those policies.
Scholars have voiced varying opinions about the degree to which President Wilson endorsed this dichotomy. Some have argued that he just meant that partisanship should be separate from administration, not all politics or policymaking. These debates have become increasingly important as the role of the federal government has grown—and particularly as agencies in the executive branch have assumed more governing responsibility.
To what degree should employees of these agencies exhibit neutral competence—that is, expertise combined with a willingness to stand up to political preferences that defy that expertise? Or should they instead exhibit responsive competence—that is, providing elected officials with the best information possible but then implementing the preferences of those officials regardless of whether it comports with expert advice?
At the same time that these questions have grown increasingly salient over the years, a partisan divide has also emerged with respect to attitudes toward the bureaucracy. Supporters of an extended role for government tended to hue closer to the neutral competence model, which is perhaps best expressed in the popular refrain, “Trust the experts.” But those who oppose extensive governmental intervention in private life have grown distrustful of experts and want to ensure that the federal bureaucracy is faithful in carrying out deregulatory goals of elected leaders.
Then came the Trump Administration. With a President who prized personal loyalty above all else, and with agencies run by high-level appointees who promised “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” the age-old debate over the role of bureaucrats took on new relevance. But in research for a recently published book, I found that the actions taken by Trump appointees did not reflect the longstanding debate between responsive competence and neutral competence. Rather, their actions were more akin to nineteenth-century discussions of a spoils system, in which the political party that wins an election rewards its supporters by appointing them to governmental positions.
I began my book project hoping to learn more about how civil servants understood their roles, and how their views compared to academic treatments of neutral competence. I also wanted to see whether what I perceived to be the relatively unique experience of serving under the Trump Administration had affected civil servants’ perceptions.
I spoke to 50 long-term employees of four agencies. One of these agencies was the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which for the better part of its century-long existence has found itself at the center of debates over the role of bureaucrats. I also interviewed staff at one other executive branch agency: the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And I spoke with staff at two congressional offices that acted as “controls” of a sort: the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
I would characterize my findings as a mix of good news and bad news.
The good news is that seemingly dated views of neutral competence are alive and well in these four agencies. My interview subjects almost uniformly endorsed the idea that their responsibility was to provide the best information to political actors whether their audience wanted to hear it or not. They also felt strongly that decisions that impacted policy were not theirs to make. In GAO, CBO, and ERS, this meant writing reports and analyses and then stepping back and letting decision-makers decide how to use the information. At OMB, this meant civil servants engaged in the more delicate task of helping politically appointed officials at OMB and in the White House implement their preferred policies regardless of whether those policies comported with OMB recommendations.
The bad news is that the Trump Administration represented a real threat to both neutral and responsive competence—and to the federal bureaucracy generally. At ERS, this threat manifested itself by having the agency’s headquarters moved from Washington D.C. to Kansas City in a clear attempt to force mass resignations. At GAO and CBO, which are far more protected by their location within the legislative branch, it manifested itself in executive branch agencies refusing to provide information to GAO. Appointees in the Trump Administration also took the unprecedented action of publicly singling out and attacking individual civil servants at the congressional agencies when reports produced conclusions unfavorable to the President’s agenda.
Nowhere was the tension felt as acutely as at OMB. Interview subjects all told me that in the past when a new President took office, there has usually been a cool period during which the new appointees do not trust the civil servants who had just helped their predecessors achieve their policy goals. But inevitably trust grows and OMB staff members come to be considered valuable resources for the new administration.
That is not what happened during the Trump Administration.
Instead, relations between appointees, White House officials, and OMB staff never improved. Tired of being told their ideas would face implementation difficulties or legal barriers, Trump appointees began to consult with OMB staff less frequently. The well-reported resistance of OMB officials to defying congressional requirements and withholding funding from Ukraine—an incident that led to President Donald Trump’s first impeachment—marked a point of no return for the relationship between bureaucrats and political leadership. OMB’s willingness to be responsive found its limits when it came to being asked to break the law.
The Trump Administration reacted in November 2020 by announcing that OMB would be the first agency whose employees would be reclassified under “Schedule F.” The President had created Schedule F a month earlier by executive order. It was a new category of civil servants that would be easier for political officials to fire. The reaction at OMB was intense. As one person I spoke with said, “If OMB becomes an agency where people turn over with each administration, then the game is over. It won’t be OMB anymore.” Because the Trump Administration ended soon after this announcement, Schedule F was rescinded and the threat was removed—for now.
Out of office, President Trump has expressed a desire to clean out the civil service should he return to the presidency. Other Republican candidates have voiced similar sentiments. If OMB, which has prided itself on serving Presidents of widely varying ideologies, is a target, then the rest of the government will be as well. The debate will no longer between neutral competence and responsive competence. It will be instead over whether the United States should return to a Jacksonian spoils system in a society that is infinitely more complex than mid-19th century America. The potential impact on effective governance is deeply worrisome.