Why take so long to form a new administration?

In an urgent time, President Obama still lacks many key top-level appointments in his government. In Britain, nearly all those appointments are accomplished just days after the election. Time to import some British goods?
Crosscut archive image.

President Obama, with friend

In an urgent time, President Obama still lacks many key top-level appointments in his government. In Britain, nearly all those appointments are accomplished just days after the election. Time to import some British goods?

It can take a new Presidential administration in Washington DC a year or more to put together a full team after the electorate has voted it into power. In Britain, the transition takes a few days at most. With British politics in such a deplorable state, no one would at this moment look to British institutions for models of good government. But new governments in Britain do at least inherit from the word go a fully staffed executive machine to get to work on the policy changes they were elected to make.

British general elections are always held on Thursdays, and the results are usually known in the early hours of Friday morning. If the government loses, the outgoing Prime Minister concedes defeat, goes up the road to Buckingham Palace to hand in his or her resignation to the Queen, and leaves the Prime Minister'ꀙs office and residence at 10 Downing Street. The successor then visits the Queen to be formally appointed as her 'ꀜFirst Minister,'ꀝ at once takes up residence in Downing Street, and immediately starts announcing key Cabinet appointments.

One of the more enjoyable rituals around British elections is the sight of postulants for high office walking sheepishly up Downing Street to hear from the new Prime Minster what jobs they are to get. The most important posts (in the Treasury and the Foreign Office) are normally filled within a few hours of the election victory, and the rest follow quickly after that. Cabinet members'ꀙ deputies and the relatively small number of other political appointments to government departments are made within the following few days. Overall, within a handful of days from an election, more than 100 political appointments are made and announced and the large majority of the new team are at their desks.

There are no confirmation hearings around these appointments. In Britain there is no separation of powers between the Executive and the Legislature as there is between the US administration and the Congress. British governments are formed from the legislature and are answerable to it. All the major political appointments including all cabinet appointments are filled by lawmakers, nearly all from the party that has won the election. There would be no point in Parliament holding confirmatory hearings on the suitability of its own members for appointment to government positions. So though the lawmakers of a losing political party have plenty of opportunity to criticize the choice of their successors and their performance in post, they have no power to block or delay their appointments.

The other crucial difference between the two political cultures is that the British career civil service fills a much higher proportion than in the U.S. of senior posts in government, and generally speaking senior civil servants stay in their posts through changes of government. In any large department, there will be maybe four Ministers appointed from Parliament — the political head of the department who will be in the Cabinet, one or two deputies, and another couple of politicians at the lower 'ꀜParliamentary Secretary'ꀝ level.

They usually bring with them a small group of political aides. These aides are sometimes aspirant politicians, sometimes policy wonks, and sometimes from a management or consulting background. There are far fewer of them than in the U.S. They can be very influential and in my observation usually contributed valueably by increasing their departments'ꀙ grasp of politics. But their role is supposed to be advisory to the political heads of departments; they are not supposed to make executive decisions, or to manage branches of the executive.

All the other staff in Departments and agencies are appointed though merit-based competitive procedures from which issues of party politics or allegiance are completely excluded. Most such staff are career Civil Servants who may be involved at the highest levels in influencing and executing government policy and are expected to do so with impartiality and equal effectiveness whichever political party is in power. This goes for the Foreign Service, too. With rare exceptions, British ambassadors are career officers, and stay in post through changes of government.

In the 30 years I spent doing policy work for successive British governments in the Health and Treasury departments one of the most enjoyable challenges was adapting to the different objectives, styles, and priorities of new governments.

The tradition of a 'ꀜpermanent'ꀝ senior Civil Service providing advice to the country'ꀙs elected leaders has been somewhat eroded in recent years. Tony Blair scarcely bothered to conceal his lack of interest in the official machine and seems to have preferred working with cliquey teams of his own advisers. In the public'ꀙs eye, the tradition was also damaged by the BBC'ꀙs brilliantly witty and well-observed TV series, 'ꀜYes, Minister,'ꀝ in which vain and gullible elected politicians were constantly outwitted by arrogant, self-serving, and manipulative senior bureaucrats.

Even so the tradition broadly survives.The present meltdown in Britain will come to an end with a general election early next year or perhaps this fall. It is likely to oust Gordon Brown'ꀙs Labor government in favor of the Conservative alternative led by David Cameron. When this happens, the new government will find, like its predecessors, a fully staffed machine ready to argue about some of its policies but — for good or ill — to implement those it sticks to.

The comments on President Obama'ꀙs early months in power have dwelt on the progress he has made, and some of the problems, but have to my mind not emphasized enough how difficult it must be for his or any other new White House administration to hit the ground running when they have still to appoint so much of their team. All Cabinet officers are now in post, but there remain large numbers of posts at the deputy and lower levels which are vacant pending nomination or confirmation, or filled on an acting basis by career officials.

Everyone agrees that the Obama administration has inherited a series of problems unprecedented in their scale, urgency, and difficulty at least since Roosevelt'ꀙs day — an international economic meltdown, two wars, pent-up demand for health reforms, the auto industry crisis, and a fiscal crisis, to name only the most obvious. Having to tackle this formidable range of problems with so many vacant or temporarily filled posts at very high levels in the Treasury, the Pentagon, State, and in Health & Human Services is hardly a recipe for sure-footed government. Even those opposed to this or any other new administration must question in their hearts whether the national interest can be reliably served by this kind of delay and uncertainty.

The effect of the present system is to deny to an incoming President the full means necessary to carry forward his government during the first year or more of his term — just when his electoral mandate is freshest and his political capital strongest. Some might defend this as an essential check on executive power. There is obviously no question transplanting the British practices here. The separation of powers and thus the Congress'ꀙs confirmation rights are historically and constitutionally entrenched, and U.S. distaste for career bureaucracies is perhaps equally ineradicable.

And there are important benefits from the influx of new blood that electoral change brings to public administration. It may well be that in some circumstances policy can be better and more enthusiastically worked up and implemented by people convinced that it is right than by people who were administering previous and rejected policies. The incomers to high positions are likely to be younger than people who have worked their way up the hierarchy. And they are likely to bring into government a wider experience of economic and professional life.

There are benefits on the exit side, too. People returning to their business, academic, or legal worlds after a stint in Washington, or going to policy institutes, represent a diffusion of knowledge and experience of government which is of value in those fields and to the wider public. Government in the US is less insulated than in Britain.

Granting all that, there may be issues of scale and process which could be looked at without damaging the constitutional fundamentals. The 'ꀜPlum Book'ꀝ which lists all 'ꀜFederal Civil Service and Leadership Positions'ꀝ which 'ꀜmay be subject to non-competitive appointment'ꀝ includes no fewer than 8,000 posts. Of these over 1,100 are appointed by the President with Senate approval. Over recent years the numbers of Presidential appointments needing Senate approval has scarcely changed. There was an increase of around 2,000 in the number of middle level posts not needing confirmation between 2000 and 2004, but they decreased again by 1,000 in 2008. But generally the trend line seems upwards. The large majority of the 'ꀜPlum Book'ꀝ posts are in Washington DC — there are just 35 in Washington state, for example.

Does anyone scrutinize them to ensure that they are all necessary posts? What exactly are the criteria for deciding which posts are political and which career? Could looking at these questions reduce the size of the staffing logjam facing new Presidents?


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors