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Civil Servants and Power at Administrative Agencies

Who drives the agenda at an administrative agency? Professor Christopher Walker discusses how an agency is composed of both political appointees and career civil servants. Both types of individuals are crucial to the work of the agency but contribute to the mission in different ways. Can both of them be held accountable for agency actions? https://youtube.com/watch?v=I5sYq29ij-U


When we think of federal agencies, a federal agency is not an it. It's a they. It's composed of numerous and different types of agency officials, and to kind of oversimplify things, you can think of a federal agency as including kind of two main types, political appointees and career civil service. The political appointees, the highest level are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The lower levels are just appointed by the president or by the heads of that agency. Those individuals represent the very, very small minority of the agency's personnel. The vast majority of agency officials are career civil servants. Career civil servants today enjoy a fair amount of protection from removal. They can only be fired for cause or for inefficiency, and so they're not as controlled by the president as you might expect from a federal agency. The fact that the vast majority of agency officials are career civil servants may make you worry that there's not political accountability, that you've got these unelected bureaucrats running around making all these decisions, and the president doesn't have any control over the final decision-making. That's a little bit misleading. At the end of the day, the head of the agency has final decision-making authority over most agency actions, and you have other political appointees at the agencies that play an important role. You might think of it as the career civil servant is the ones that are powering the agency, but ultimately the head of the agency, a political appointee, is the one that actually steers it. That's at least the conventional understanding. You might run into problems, however, when you have an agency that's very mission-driven, and that mission is not in line with the new presidential administration. . You might think of this, examples, at the Securities and Exchange Commission when it switches from a Republican administration to a Democratic administration. The Republican administration might have viewed its interaction with the business community very differently than a Democratic administration. You might see some resistance from the career civil service in that shifted mission In those circumstances you have what we call bureaucratic resistance, where the federal civil service may find ways to slow down or otherwise resist the changes in administration The more significant authority you exercise, the more politically accountable you should be. I think that's the core to civil service reform, is that the closer you are to making the significant decision that affects our everyday lives, the more important it is that you act in a way that's consistent with the democratic process.

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