President Trump has argued that his slow pace of presidential appointments is deliberate, to underscore his belief that many high-level agency jobs are unnecessary. The NYU Brademas Center welcomed Professor Paul Light to discuss Trump's beliefs about the size of the federal bureaucracy and the consequences of his decision to leave many of these jobs unfilled. Many analysts believe that the presidential leadership hierarchy has been due for streamlining for decades and several presidents have tried to trim the totals with limited success. Prof. Light presented his latest research project entitled: “The Fog of Command: Fact Sheet on the Continued Thickening of Government.”
President Trump recently argued that his slow pace of presidential appointments was deliberate. As he told Fox & Friends last month, many of the high-level jobs are unnecessary: "You know we have so many people in government, even me, I look at some of the jobs and its people over people over people....There are hundreds and hundreds of jobs that are totally unnecessary jobs."
Trump was right about the number of jobs. According to Paul Light's most recent analysis of federal phone-books, there have never been more layers of leaders at the top of the federal hierarchy or more layers per leader. Whereas John F. Kennedy entered office in charge of seven cabinet departments, Trump entered in charge of 15. And whereas Kennedy took charge of 17 layers of senior managers attached to cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, and administrators, Trump took charge of 71. Finally, whereas Kennedy appointed or oversaw 451 leaders who occupied his 17 layers, Trump was put in charge of 3,265. And these numbers only cover the cabinet departments. Some of the leaders and layers are purely political and subject to Senate confirmation, but most are a mix of senior career and political executives and lower level personal and confidential assistants.
The number of leaders is often often described as but a fraction of a fraction of total federal employment, but they are far from a fraction of a fraction of the total number of layers between a cabinet secretary at the top of a department and the federal employees who deliver services on the front lines. According to Light's last count, a Veterans Affairs hospital nurse was 17 layers below the secretary of which nine were at the very top of the department, while eight were far below in regional offices, hospitals, and clinics. Even though this title creep increases the distance between the top and bottom of government, the total number of presidential appointees is often described as an insignificant fraction of total federal employment. After all, the number of senior political and career officers at the top of government was less than one-hundredth of a percent of the federal workforce in 2016.
Light's chain-of-command diagrams show the same patterns for other high-impact federal jobs such as air traffic controllers, FBI agents, immigration officers, Internal Revenue Service auditors, international trade specialists, national park and forest rangers, Social Security claims representatives, weather forecasters, and wage and hour, food safety, customs, and public housing investigators had equally impressive chains of command.
Light will discuss Trump's assertions and his decision to simply leave many of these jobs unfilled. The leadership hierarchy has been due for streamlining for decades and several presidents have tried to trim the totals with limited success. Most of the jobs are plums to be handed out more as presents and rewards than to translate the president's agenda into action.
As Light will argue, Trump should take his comments seriously and begin planning for streamlining the number of people on people on people. But he should not streamline by simply vacating posts. Random vacancies will undermine his authority and weaken his access to needed information leaving him with a full slate of cabinet secretaries, but vacant links in his chain of command that slow the movement of key information up the chain and guidance down. Light will discuss more productive methods for flattening the leadership hierarchy without weakening the president's control. Leadership does not come from random cuts, but thoughtful action on each layer in the hierarchy. At least for now, the Trump administration has its heads, but not its neck. According to Light, this is a recipe for missed signals and high-risk accidents.
Dr. Paul C. Light is NYU Wagner's Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service and founding principal investigator of the Global Center for Public Service, Before joining NYU, Dr. Light served as the Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, founding director of its Center for Public Service, and vice president and director of the Governmental Studies Program. He has served previously as director of the Public Policy Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts and associate dean and professor of public affairs at the University of Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
Light is the author of 25 books, including works on social entrepreneurship, the nonprofit sector, federal government reform, public service, and the baby boom. His most recent book is Government by Investigation: Presidents, Congress, and the Search for Answers, 1945-2012 (2014). His award winning books include The President's Agenda: Domestic Policy Choice from Kennedy to Clinton (1998), Thickening Government: Federal Hierarchy and the Diffusion of Accountability (1995), The Tides of Reform: Making Government Work, 1945-1995 (1997), and A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It 2008). A Government Ill Executed received the American Political Science Association's Herbert Simon Award for the most important book on public administration in the preceding three-to-five years upon publication. Light is also a co-author of a best-selling American government textbook, Government by the People. His research interests include: bureaucracy, civil service, Congress, entitlement programs, executive branch, government reform, nonprofit effectiveness, organizational change, and the political appointment process.