A new guv's first job? Reinvent the wheel
The metaphor of the honeymoon so often applied to changes of gubernatorial administrations in Illinois is apt. The people involved suddenly confront grave responsibilities for which nothing in their previous experience has quite prepared them for. And while everyone is eager to offer advice, few have wisdom to share.
In 1999, Illinois saw the transition in office from one governor to a new one—from James Thompson to Jim Edgar—for the first time in fourteen years. Peggy Boyer Long thought it a good time to reflect on the process as it usually plays out. I had so much to say that we had to split the article into two parts.
I have omitted as irrelevant the 300-word aside about Britain's parliamentary system that accompanied the original.
Rearranging the Pieces
Bob Ganchiff remembers the moment vividly. Then a personnel vice-president at Continental Bank, he and bank colleague Gene Croisant had been loaned to the just-elected James R. Thompson's transition team. Ganchiff was standing before one of Chicago's downtown clubs, describing how the new man in the Executive Mansion had asked them to find "the best people he could get" to run the new administration, and how they had used the same objective search techniques, the same arduous interview regimen used to find corporate management talent. "As I was speaking, I heard a muffled whisper from one of the tables," Ganchiff recalls. "'What a crock!'"
The transition is the first thing a new gubernatorial administration does, and usually the last thing it has the time to try to do well. The process sometimes has resembled a game of musical chairs, most often a potlatch. Increasingly, it resembles a corporate job search.
In the interregnum, election to inauguration, the politician must become a personnel manager. In addition to his personal staff, he must name directors for the 30 executive agencies—the "code departments "established in the Administrative Code, plus others set up by statute. On a side plate are appointments to vacant positions on nearly 300 committees, commissions, boards, councils and authorities that range in clout from the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority to the Advisory Board on Necropsy Service to Coroners.
At its simplest, staffing a new administration is like hiring for any large organization. First, one must learn which jobs need to be filled, and what each job requires. Two, one must find candidates qualified to do that job, and choose the best among them. And three, one must persuade those preferred candidates to take the job. Done right, the process is a complicated business, and it must be done scores of times, in less than two months.
Like most things in state government, transitions used to be simpler. Forty years ago, state agencies were staffed essentially by clerks, and agency directors were little more than head clerks. A few directorships required specialized expertise—the top man at the old Department of Conservation, for example, had to be able to shoot ducks—but most candidates were considered qualified if they were politically loyal and kept their pants on in public.
Even then it was hard to fill every slot. In his biography of the late governor, John Bartlow Martin tells the story of Adlai Stevenson's travail in finding someone to run the Department of Mines and Minerals. The best man for the job couldn't be hired because he was opposed by the miners' union. The next choice accepted only after a dubious stratagem to augment his pay, then died after three weeks on the job. From a new batch of 17 applicants, the best had a wife who refused to move to Springfield, and the second-best had family involved in the rackets. Stevenson finally settled on the manager of a Downstate mine, whose credentials for the post were exposed when his old mine blew up a couple of years later, killing 119 miners.
Cynics suggest that little has changed, that all a person needs to be a successful state agency director today is a sound bladder (all those meetings) and the ability to recognize a useful idea in time to excise it from any official reports. While the cynical view cannot be totally dismissed in Illinois, the directorship of many state agencies these days demands, and quite often gets, people of passing quality. Today, a conscientious director must be familiar with information technologies, hiring law, benefits issues, budget-making, and the arcana of federal programs, not to mention have specialized skills unique to her agency, from speaking Educator to understanding a hedge contract.
Happily for transitioneers, the talent pool is deeper than ever. Government as a career attracts people a step above teaching in talent and above business in ethics. And there is a shadow government of private not-for-profit lobbying and watchdog agencies whose staff are a lush orchard of issues expertise, and experienced administrative talent that a new governor may pick from. As for the laity, well, even they come with fatter resumes. Here's one example: Tradition dictates that the director of the state ag department be a farmer, but farmers aren't exactly farmers anymore. Take Becky Doyle, tapped for that job by Edgar in 1991. Doyle, a graduate of the University of Illinois College of Agriculture who also studied international affairs at Washington University and at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, co-managed a livestock operation—and was a Republican precinct committee woman.
According to myth, the transition is little more than a divvying up of the spoils. The main qualification for a top job is political loyalty, if not to the victorious party, then to the person of the new governor. But loyalty is not to be despised as a job qualification. Whatever his statutory responsibilities, an agency director's real job is to implement the new governor's policies, or at least to obscure his lack of them. At a minimum there must be a broad philosophical sympathy between appointer and appointee, because even when a governor spells out the "what" of an agency's agenda, a director still enjoys latitude regarding the "how." Besides, only someone who has been stuck with the job of running a government like Illinois's appreciates the capacity for mischief that inheres in its many agencies, and thus the need a governor has for people of tested loyalty whose judgment he can trust.
In any event, there also is a long tradition in Illinois of governors naming members of previous administrations, members of other parties, or nonpartisan professionals to key posts. Many critics dismiss pledges to "find the best people" as mere rhetoric, but it is in a governor's urgent interest to do so. The management skills of his key department heads are a governor's bulwark against accusing headlines, and people with a lot of skills are often passed from governor to governor, as they pass on the precious antiques in the Mansion—people like John Kramer, who began at the transportation department under Dan Walker, Jim Thompson appointees Art Quern and Jess McDonald and, possibly, Jim Edgar picks Kirk Brown and Howard Peters.
In days past, finding candidates for available posts couldn't have been easier. The county chairmen of the victorious political parties would propose and the new governor would dispose, according to his sense of which agencies needed to be run well, and which could withstand the indifferent attentions of a well-connected caretaker. The parties these days reportedly play a lesser role, but there is no lack of advice on whom to put where.
Finding qualified candidates, however, is trickier. The old maxim—it's not what you know but who you know—applies with particular force to new governors. Jim Edgar, who had been in Illinois government his whole life, wrung his Rolodex like a sponge and still could not come up with enough good people to fill all his cabinet posts. Springfield outsiders—the Walkers, the Thompsons—must cast their nets even wider.
Of course, making appointments is a political process meant to appease both special interest and party. We may assume it was not his civic-mindedness that qualified the chairman of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association to sit on Edgar's transition team, or the Illinois Education Association president to chair George Ryan's education committee. Further, state jobs have been administered as a balm for the bruised ego of failed candidates for decades. Sue Suter, Becky Doyle, and Terry Gainer were among Edgar's top appointees who won jobs after losing elections for the governor's party. Speculation was widespread that Loleta Didrickson, having martyred herself in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, will join the saints in the Ryan cabinet.
Even when a person is hired to placate an interest group or to pay off a party debt, plausible qualifications must be presented. (This is the legacy of 100 years of reform in Illinois: Even hacks need credentials.) Mike Lawrence, the former Edgar press secretary who was part of that transition team, says, "There's a difference between campaigning and governing. One piece of advice I think is important to incoming elected officials: You should be loyal to the people who helped you get into that position, but don't need to demonstrate that loyalty by putting them into positions for which they are ill-suited."
Finding good people often is only the first hurdle. Getting them to take the job often is harder. Inconveniently, the people who know the most about a given field are also likely to be the people who have an interest in it, with the result that many a promising job candidate is ruled out because of real or apparent conflicts of interest. Resources are often scant; the first assignment faced by all of Edgar's picks in 1991 was to slash their departments' budgets because of the state's parlous finances. Then there are the working conditions (squalid by private-sector standards) and the relatively low pay (Edgar complained after his transition that several of his new appointees had to take pay cuts in accepting their new jobs), besides having to deal with the attentions of a nosy press, and the entanglements of civil service, patronage, and unions.
Because of these constraints, it is almost impossible even for people of ability to do well in such jobs, and if one does do well, few people notice outside the statehouse complex. Agency directorships thus almost never are launching pads for careers outside the bureaucracy. Most conscientious directors get so badly bruised that they leave state service looking not for challenges but for rest—a nice quiet job with a professional association, perhaps, or some part-time lobbying job that includes lots of lunches.
No wonder people with worldly ambitions do not slaver to run even a Department of Transportation, much less a Department of Children and Family Services, the latter assignment being less like management than the Peace Corps. Things got so bad under Thompson that he seemed to conceive of minor state agency directorships as entry-level jobs and, it often seemed, fill them with kids whose previous work experience was organizing fraternity rush weeks.
Then there is the problem of asking people from metropolitan climes to go into voluntary exile in the capital. "Real problems," says Ganchiff. "Family issues entered into it in a critical way." Some fret about the ability of a professional spouse to find work in a small job market, others about the quality of local schools. More convenient travel between Springfield and Chicago has solved the problem for some, but constant travel is itself a drain.
Might transitions be improved by (for example) reducing the sheer number of appointments a new governor has to make? The governor's power to directly appoint the executive staffs of some key departments and agencies already has been reduced. While he appoints members of agencies such as the Capital Development Board, the board picks the agency's executive director.
The problem is that the number of appointments per se is not necessarily the problem. A new governor does not personally search for the best and the brightest to sit on, say, the Governor's Fitness Council's 13-member advisory committee and its 50-member at-large council. Indeed, the chief executive seldom personally reviews candidates below the assistant director level.
In any event, achieving a less freighted transition at the cost of clout is unlikely to appeal to even the most efficiency-minded governor. Edgar, for example, has proposed a cabinet-level department of education over whose schools chief he presumably would enjoy direct power of appointment, rather than the indirect power he now has to appoint the people who appoint that person. Don Udstuen, who was an assistant to the governor on Richard Ogilvie's transition, is not alone in his opinion that, "In fairness, if you're going to hold the governor responsible for the conduct of these agencies, you can't delegate the appointment process."
If the number of appointments can't be reduced, might the time available to make them be increased? No one any longer expects a new governor to make all of even the important appointments by inauguration Day. With a month to go before he was to be sworn in, Ryan, for example, had just started to name chairs to a dozen transition committees. Recalls Ganchiff, "When I look back at that experience, I scratch my head. How did we ever pull that off, given the time frame?"
Recent Illinois governors are themselves reforming the transition process, and judged by the Progressive-era standards that still pertain in such matters, most people would conclude it is being improved. Since 1980, the trend has been toward broader participation, more structured participation, and depoliticized executive searches.
Adlai Stevenson II sat down with two or three aides to brainstorm his transition. Illinois in 1948 had about 25 percent fewer people living in it than today, and the state government was relatively smaller still. No wonder then that for his first term, Jim Edgar assembled a committee of more than four dozen advisers (he'd originally planned a group of about 30), and Ryan has set up a dozen committees, organized by policy area, each with its own prominent citizen as its head.
Transition teams are getting broader in purpose as well as membership. Under Edgar, they advised on policy. Ryan's 400 official advisers constitute a sort of symbolic cabinet; an ad hoc mechanism for policy and personnel review has become a means of ritual inclusion. This is not bad; such panels legitimize not only the new administration but state government itself by involving a public that is otherwise remote from it, making the process "political" in the best sense. The risk is that a governor's staff, already pressed by the need to get an administration in place, is distracted by appointing and running a transition team that is too diffuse in structure and purpose.
Within practical limits, broader is better. Thompson came into office owing relatively little to his party and so was able to take an ecumenical approach to hiring; the process brought some first-class people into state government. Edgar's transition committee co-chairs included West Side activist Nancy Jefferson. Recalls Mike Lawrence, "She brought a perspective that would not have been there otherwise. As a result, we considered people who are not familiar to the governor or his senior staff. We ended up with more women and minorities in top positions than any governor ever had."
"Objectivity has to be maintained," suggests Ganchiff. "Ideally, there ought to be people assigned to the process that don't have political strings attached." A possible model is the three nine-member merit commissions used by Illinois's two U.S. Senators, Richard Durbin and Carol Moseley-Braun, to recommend the most qualified candidates for vacant federal judgeships. But again, it's hard to see a governor relinquishing his discretion in such matters, nor would it necessarily be appropriate. A little objectivity goes a long way in such matters. Judges are hired to apply the law on behalf of all, but bureaucrats must implement policy on behalf of one governor. there is no permanent transition mechanism, each new administration has to reinvent the wheel. Of course, each administration brings to the task different personalities with different political priorities—well, slightly different, this being Illinois—who must cope with different fiscal circumstances. But the process is more alike from governor to governor than it is different. There are lessons that can be learned, in short, but no formal means to share knowledge of how to do a good transition, or at least of how to avoid messing one up.
Because Illinois governors have been Republicans since 1976, transition advice has become a species of family lore. Edgar asked wise heads from the Thompson Administration to help, including policy wonk extraordinaire Paula Wolff, who served as executive director of Edgar's transition team. Lawrence confirms that Wolff and colleagues such as Sally Jackson were "helpful" to their successor staff. Ryan also tapped such Thompson veterans as top aide Samuel Skinner, head of Ryan's transportation panel. However, such help can't be counted upon when the Mansion passes from one party to another; Thompson transitioneers found the attitude of Democrat Dan Walker's staff to be less than collegial.
Says Udstuen, "There's no formula. What would be a good transition for one person may not fit how another person wants to go about it. Some governors like to get very intimately involved in detail, others like to see the final draft." Lawyer Thompson, for instance, wanted a case made for each potential appointee.
Concludes Udstuen," It really has to be tailored." Lawrence agrees. "I believe in giving a new governor as much flexibility as he or she can get and then holding them accountable." ●
Getting in Gear
Lincoln once said it's best not to swap horses while crossing the river. He may have come to that wisdom in Springfield, watching the tumult that erupts in the capital during a change in state administration.
During a gubernatorial transition in particular, all is excitement. Campaign go-fers contemplate their transformation into spokespersons. Hacks and paper-pushers go to sleep with visions of job plums dancing in their heads. A transition is one of the few times when the gossip at holiday parties in Springfield is interesting; by early January of this year, at least half a dozen names could be heard as prospects for the top job in George Ryan's environmental protection agency alone.
Yet for all the hoo-ha, nothing really seems to change much. Is a transition an opportunity wasted, or a catastrophe averted? Conversations with current and former directors and veteran state employees suggest that it is both.
An agency agenda—"agency" as here used refers to all state of Illinois departments, commissions, agencies and boards—has at least three items on it at the start of any new administration: What the new governor hopes to do, what its new director is able to do, and what the agency is willing to let them do.
During its first few weeks, a new administration is able to think instead of do. A change of governor thus seems a perfect time for stock-taking, a time to assess whether the programs of its predecessor deserve to be dropped, or amended. Governor-elect George H. Ryan followed Jim Edgar's lead and seized the transition as an opportunity for reviewing policy as well as staffing. The two are linked to the extent that policy decisions condition the choice of agency directors; a sensible governor doesn't pick a fire-breathing reformer if he intends to maintain the status quo, for example.
Unfortunately, the 11-week lag between Election Day and the inauguration, which seemed too long once the state paved the roads to Springfield, now seems much too brief. A new administrative team, especially that of a new governor, barely has time to list all the programs it inherits, much less master myriad details. Current administrators are usually quizzed by transition staff about the status quo, but the former are not always frank with their potential bosses about their agency's weaknesses, assuming they know about them in the first place.
The transition team thus finds itself in the same bind as a car buyer who has to make up his mind about a new model without having taken it for a drive. In December of 1990, when governor-elect Jim Edgar was preparing to take office, the state's auditor general released a report asserting that the state departments of Public Health, Public Aid, and Children and Family Services, which jointly administered Parents Too Soon, a much-ballyhooed $20 million teenage pregnancy reduction program, couldn't prove the program was the cause of changes in pregnancy rates. Edgar decided to keep it on the grounds that—as one of his top aides put it—it may have been difficult to prove the program was having an impact but it also was difficult to prove that it wasn't having an impact.
Campaign position papers do not constitute an administrative agenda. Campaigning is about what might be done; governing is about what can and must be done. A new governor in particular will not have a policy position on most programs, or at least one that is detailed enough to be useful. Most governors leave it to the new director to sort out the details of what needs to be done.
Often, interest groups fill this policy vacuum, but an agency's career staff does too. Every agency has policies and priorities of its own. Often these are not articulated, even to—perhaps especially to—its directors. But they are deep-rooted. Because they reflect the agency's accumulated wisdom, staffs are often more deeply committed to them than to the whims of a director. Career staff argue these policies first in briefing papers to transition staff, later in meetings with the new team. Governors often embrace these ideas gratefully. (They were elected to do something, after all.) The bureaucracy thus imposes policy on the new administration as often as the reverse.
The role of policy in shaping a new administration is usually exaggerated, anyway. As one director puts it, it is not necessarily policies that distinguish one administration from another. Illinois has long since worked out a broad consensus on matters of importance, and the arguments between this candidate and that one are about incremental changes, relative emphasis, style.
For agency staff, adapting to new managers often proves harder than adapting to new policies. The variety of personal administrative styles that agency directors or elected officers employ to implement policies is much wider than the range in the policies themselves. And much of what goes on during a transition is motivated by the desire to make a favorable impression on the incoming boss.
In that sense, a transition is like an arranged marriage. Agency staff wish to please the new boss because their future comfort and well-being depend on it. But they also suffer great anxiety because they do not know exactly how to please her.
Some directors report that their main job in the weeks during a transition is simply to keep staff calm. (As one puts it, people obsess about the prospect of change because that's what people do.) Happily, state operations don't grind to a halt during a transition. A certain momentum is generated by the work itself, and except when agencies are being merged or created from scratch, decision-making systems and procedures are already in place.
This is not to suggest life in agencies is merely routine during a transition. The agency often is presented with new programs intended to advance the political agenda of the governor by placating special interests or the larger public; sometimes this means improving the programs, but in most cases it merely adds to them, or shuffles them in ways that give the illusion of new approaches. A looming transition usually spurs a departing governor to move his staff from top jobs, from which they risk being bounced, into lesser posts. Their accumulated experience goes with them, and while it is not lost to state government, it is lost to the agencies involved, at a time when it is needed most. At the same time, career staff must learn who among the new class is well enough placed, politically, to protect them—and thus is worth cultivating—with budget-makers and legislative foes; a wrong choice can leave their favorite programs vulnerable.
Further, staff is distracted preparing briefing papers for the new team—not a useless exercise by any means, as it gives the agency a little perspective on what it does, but often such missives are more billetdoux than blueprint. Finally, conscientious incumbent directors generally think it inappropriate to make a decision about, say, long-term funding or a collaborative agreement with another agency that commits the agency's new regime to something it hasn't had a chance to approve. For weeks prior to a transition, therefore, programs can sit idling.
Overall, however, the agency routine remains fairly normal. Which is not a bad thing. If the Illinois Constitution guarantees political stability during a change of governors, the bureaucracy guarantees administrative stability. The bureaucracy's famous dead weight, so frustrating to a new director itching to do more than pick out the new carpet in the office, is the source of much of its value to the public. It acts as a flywheel whose sheer weight stabilizes the gyrations of policy and politics from one administration to the next. Because of its inherent stability, a new governor can risk placing an indifferent manager—usually a politico—in charge of many agencies. (The departments of Revenue and Transportation are two of several in Illinois whose strong middle management teams enable them to survive if directors are less than the best.) To frustrated staffers in the statehouse, however, this virtue of the bureaucracy is also its vice. From that vantage point, career civil servants often seem to take the attitude toward a new administration that the longtime Illinoisan takes toward winter: It will blow over eventually, so just hunker down and wait. As well as the dullards who resist change simply because it is change, state offices seem crammed with predecessors' patronage hires who oppose new approaches out of politics or pique.
Inertia and partisan subversion are common enough in the cubicles, but those are not the only grounds on which conscientious civil servants may take issue with a new administration. They, more than anyone apart from their agencies' hapless clients, know how much needs to change about the ways many state agencies do business. The problem with new directors, from the careerists' point of view, is that they want to change too much, or they want to change too fast, or they want to change merely to make a show of shaking things up, whether or not it actually advances the work of the agency.
A typical result is the announcement made by Gov. Edgar's first Children and Family Services director, who—she said—had inverted the agency's organization chart, putting the families and children at the top with administrators at the bottom. This is the sort of "reform" that leaves administrators rolling their eyes. As long as it is left at the level of public relations, such stunts do no real harm to the agency's work. Too often, however, such early initiatives will be expensive, needlessly disruptive or insufficiently thought out. And a really serious reformer can come up with ideas that are all these things at once.
Of course, the resistance of some career employees to a new administration is not always principled. Bureaucrats cover their rear ends when asked to take controversial action, just as governors do. But what a governor's staff sees as obstructionism is to veteran state administrators a skepticism born of experience. The careerist knows he has to be cautious when somebody new comes in and says, "What you're doing isn't important. Start doing this now." That guy may be gone in a few months, and the careerist will still be there.
That career administrators don't always see eye to eye with even well-meaning new directors should not surprise. A large agency in particular is a settled community, with its own history, its own traditions, its own mores; the career administrator lives there, directors are just visiting. While each gubernatorial administration develops its own decision-making culture, that influence lasts only until that administration is replaced. The permanent culture of an agency is shaped not by governors and their appointees but by its resident middle managers, unions, interest groups, and—these days—professional accrediting organizations and watchdog groups.
In short, the names on the letterhead change after a transition but not much else, at least at first. A new administration begins its first term working from spending blueprints essentially drawn up by its predecessor. As the larger departments have staffs of several thousand, even a conscientious director can take months to meet, much less get to know, all the people in the department who affect the way things are run. Meanwhile she must rely on senior department staff to instruct her, including people who tend to be Politburo types more likely to explain what can't be done than what might be done. Overwhelmed by meetings and budget deadlines, they don't pay much attention to the details of the day-to-day operations. They don't have time to be creative, look at fresh approaches, or redefine an issue.
Typically, newly appointed administrators are suspicious of everything and everybody. In spite of the lip service given to the new boss's right to reshape program priorities within an agency, many agency staffs—including soon-to-be-replaced directors—try to make that as hard as possible. Projects to which the present regime is committed, and which may be chopped by their successors, are put on a fast track in the hope that too much will have been invested for the new administration to abandon them. This sort of preemptive decision-making is usually rooted in the belief—not unfounded—that the experienced insiders know more about what needs to be done in their field than the neophytes waiting in the lobby.
A new director may think of himself as the CEO of a large organization, in short, but in most cases he is more like a colonial administrator whom the natives are obliged to obey but not respect. Changing one part of this community is hard to do;changing it fast, especially by diktat, is impossible, and is as likely to stimulate insurrection as innovation.
A recent report on presidential transitions by the federal General Accounting Office fretted about what it called the "generally poor relationship between political appointees and career leaders and managers." It's hard to generalize about the state of relations between those two camps in Illinois agencies. Careerists accept that a new governor's policy choices are often politically driven. What rankles many a nonpartisan civil servant is the many other ways that politics complicates their work. Where relations are bad, political interference in day-to-day agency operations is often the cause.
In the old days, virtually the whole state establishment owed its employment to political appointment. New officers could fire as well as hire without showing cause. When Adlai Stevenson took office in 1948, for example, he had it in his power to put new people not only at the top desks of the code departments and assorted commissions, but to dismiss and replace some 30,000 regular employees. The first task facing any new agency head was to fire the other guy's guys. The aim was less to make the agencies work for you than to keep them from working against you.
A new administration, especially one that brought a new party as well as a new governor to power, thus hit Springfield like the Visigoths looting Rome. Whole staffs at some agencies were driven into exile. Bureaucracies may not have been delicate organisms, and not all the people let go in these quadrennial purges were paragons as public servants, but such wholesale changes in personnel would unsettle any organization.
In the past 50 years or so, a tougher state personnel code, anti-patronage lawsuits, and creeping professionalization have dramatically reduced the ability of a new governor to replace state employees. For example, as the Edgar Administration first took office, not quite 3,500 state jobs were designated as political appointments under terms of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Rutan anti-patronage case. That 1990 decision outlawed hiring or promoting rank-and-file government workers because of their political affiliations. (An earlier court decision banned firing rank-and-file workers for political reasons.) Even counting the 140 or so Cabinet members and department heads and their assistants that he is obliged to appoint by statute, a new governor can use political consideration in less than five percent of the nearly 67,000 state executive agency jobs he can appoint. The same trend affects the operations of other elected officers. The secretary of state's office, once one of the lushest trees in the patronage orchard, officially has only 121 patronage positions out of a staff of some 3,400—not even four percent.
Thus, though state government has grown enormously in 50 years, any one governor is limited in the damage—or improvement—he can wreak on the state bureaucracy. A governor today must name directors for 30 code departments or equivalents compared to 13 in Stevenson's day, and is responsible eventually for appointments to nearly 300 committees, commissions, boards, councils, and authorities—nearly three times the number in 1948. However, the proportion of all these posts that are or can be changed by a new administration today is much smaller than it was then. Agency directors report that early retirement is much more harmful to smooth operations than a change of administration.
This is good news to anti-patronage reformers (who do not include all "good government" types) who see the job shuffle that attends a transition as at best inefficient and at worst a misappropriation of public resources. Indeed, talented and experienced upper-level managers are let go by the dozens, usually to be replaced by people who are exactly like them in every way, save experience. The view that prevails at the moment in the courts, however, holds that patronage hiring and firing of senior administrators is essential to what Justice Lewis F. Powell, in a dissent in a key 1976 U.S. Supreme Court case involving patronage in the Cook County sheriff's office, called the "practical functioning of our democratic system." If the public is going to hold a governor and other elected officials responsible for what their agencies do, then they must have a free hand to ensure that agencies do their bidding.
Jim Edgar made headlines in 1996 with his plea in favor of patronage. He was not the first governor to learn that the assumption of the courts—that a government's interest in securing effective employees can be adequately served by choosing or dismissing high-level employees on the basis of their political views—is unfounded. A director cannot drive even a small agency all by himself. State offices are crammed with patronage hires who have a hundred ways to frustrate a program that falls short of dismissable nonperformance.
An agency director is widely assumed to be the bureaucrat's bureaucrat, but management skill is not what the job usually requires, or rather is not all that the job requires. The director's job is one of the most complex in state government. He is at once manager, politician and policy innovator. He is the governor's man in the agency and the agency's man in the Statehouse—and his own man in neither place. National surveys of senior state administrators have found that they spend only about a third of their time on actual management; the rest of their week is spent on the stump or playing policy adviser to superiors, among other chores.
Relatively few new directors are management specialists when they take over—a notable difference from the way things are done in, say, big business. Most new directors come from policy or political backgrounds. A few—Edgar transportation director Kirk Brown, several past Public Health directors, among others—are professionals turned managers; others accept the job to get their ticket punched before seeking private-sector careers.
This is not to say that good management does not matter to an agency. The rank and file crave a new director who sees to it that the copying machines work and the print shop runs smoothly. A new governor expects an agency to be run well enough not to embarrass the administration with expensive inefficiencies or scandals, a la the MSI contract case. And wonks know that a poor policy well-administered is, unfortunately, more effective than a good policy poorly administered.
The question is, does an agency need to depend on its director to provide good management? Most already have managers, and if they do poorly it usually is because they lack leadership. (The same is true of governors and states.) Sure, a director needs to know the nuts and bolts of agency operations well enough to sound plausible when she explains to interest groups why the agency has done less than they expected, or to the press how her team is doing more than anyone previously thought possible. But in general, what is true of car salesmen is true of agency directors: You don't need to know how to fix one to sell one.
Might transitions be improved? The GAO lamely recommended something that sounds a lot like family therapy. ("Career and political executives should attend orientation and other programs together whenever possible to open dialogue between these two groups.") A protocol for information requests by transition teams would seem more useful. More time might help, but as the new Ryan Administration showed, transition deliberations tend to expand to fill the time (and attention span) available to them. A formal phase-in period, during which members of the old regime linger a while to mentor the newcomers, is another plausible reform.
Other factors shape the work of state agencies more than do the people a new governor puts in the directors' chairs, or the policies that she puts in their heads. Shifts in federal priorities and funding and court decisions are two of them. Another is experience. Proposals for real innovations from state government's chief executives, such as Edgar's proposed tax swap for schools, tend not to come at the beginning of an administration, because it takes a year or two at least to learn what needs to be done.
The forces weighed against fundamental change are formidable, from the size and complexity of the state establishment to the bureaucratic culture. Politics hampers change too; any candidate advocating change radical enough to unsettle the establishment is unlikely to get elected in the first place. So things change with each new administration but seldom improve. This agency is a little better run, that one a little worse, this program gets a little more attention, that one doesn't, but the checks still go out, the forms still get processed—and the problems never quite get solved. New people doing the same old things is no transition at all. ●