CEOs over federal bureaucracies

Despite the title, this post has nothing to do with politics—well, almost nothing; at any rate; no partisan politics. I’ve been thinking about selection of top managers in government, particularly heads of massive bureaucracies. In America the positions are often referred to as secretaries. What got me to revisit some old thoughts on this was the April debacle over President Trump’s nomination of Admiral Ronny Lynn Jackson, MD, to be Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The nomination was withdrawn after some embarrassing matters came out prior to his planned hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

My concern in this post, however, is not about insufficient vetting by the White House, nor any of the non-medical criticisms of Jackson’s conduct. The topic here is about the startling management ignorance of presidents—with the possible exception of President Eisenhower—in nominating persons to ultra-high management positions. Ignorance about the requisite expertise for so high a level is not specific to President Trump, but is widespread among his predecessors and the senators and representatives deciding whether to approve presidents’ nominees.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is a behemoth of one-third of a million personnel. (Only a handful of American corporations exceed that number.) Competence as a chief executive officer for even far smaller companies is a rare commodity. It includes advanced skills to design and continually assess multi-levels of managers. It includes ability to balance extreme empowerment for personal growth and performance as well as, simultaneously, assurance of ethics and prudence in a possibly far-flung organization. Even one level of management, like a supervisor of a half dozen subordinates, requires abilities few people have without training, whatever their intelligence and good will. Managers managing managers multiplies the difficulty. Entrusting a large company—or government department—to someone without the requisite skills is to ask for inadequate, often disastrous management.

In the case of Admiral Jackson, various supporters made comments like those made by the president: “He’s got a beautiful record” and “He would have done a great job, he has a tremendous heart.” One summary, “He practiced good medicine,” was, if anything, an understatement of Jackson’s extensive training and experience with various medical specialties like submarine, hyperbaric, and emergency medicine, apparently in all with considerable praise. Certainly, good hearts are to be sought everywhere, but they don’t assure skilled management. Neither does expertise in one of the specific undertakings of the organization to be managed, such as health care. In other words, having medical credentials is neither needed nor possibly even helpful to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, just as having a teacher’s certificate is not needed to run a large school system.

Although experience and competence in the management of huge enterprise are, in practice, given insufficient attention, some did speak out. “Ronny Jackson [is] a terrific doctor and Navy officer,” said former CIA Director John Brennan, “however, he has neither the experience nor the credentials to run the very large and complex VA. This is a terribly misguided nomination that will hurt both a good man and our veterans.” That point of view was not universal. Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service special agent who worked with Jackson on the presidential protective division, said, “Ronny Jackson will be just damn fine in management skills.” Brennan may have had relevant expertise to make his point, but how Bongino would have had as a special agent is not immediately obvious.

The country is fortunate that there is even this rather small amount of argument on so important a point. Appointments are made typically with scant attention to that expertise, including its nature, how to assess it, and once an appointment is in place, how to support it. Obviously, those obligated to evaluate it in candidates are rarely qualified to do so, starting at the top. President Trump has neither the understanding nor the temperament. President Obama had the temperament, but in my reading not clearly the understanding. Former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton may have had access to develop both, though I can’t tell. Gubernatorial experience would be potentially instructive, but being atop a flawed management system—as state governments tend to be—can scarcely be counted on to instill exemplary management skills.

Many Americans and, seemingly their representatives as well, think that President Trump’s status as a businessman carries with it expertise in upper management. That is not true. He directly managed a quite small coterie, “managing” his extensive holdings through them and contracts. That doesn’t come close to managing thousands or even hundreds of employees. Thus his expertise in top management was and still is no more managerially sufficient than President Obama’s clearly minor experience directing a community nonprofit. So while top management skill is important for appointees, the nominating authority’s lack of that skill gets the important selection process off on the wrong foot. It is easy to see how partisan considerations—which politicians understand thoroughly and are quite ready to assess—rise to the top as the almost unquestioned criteria for making nomination and appointment judgments.

So what is to be done? The press—likely due to its own ignorance on the matter—has seldom pointed out these inadequacies. Political appointments thrust managerially inadequate persons into roles that in corporate governance are known to require years of training and experience. The press should correct its negligible attention to the matter, for it is a relevant factor in governmental operations, thus real meat for press emphasis. Like Director Brennan’s little-heeded warning, nominations like Jackson’s (and hundreds of others) threaten nominees with failure, those who depend on the organizations involved, and taxpayers.

Those in the nomination and appointment sequence bear the greatest culpability, whether in the White House or the Congress. I hope they come to pay more attention to this important matter (as well, of course, in the equivalent state settings). That is not a partisan issue nor one related particularly to a given bureaucracy. My comments in this post are not directed toward nor a judgement of President Trump, current senators and House members, or Admiral Jackson. And happily, the shortcoming presents a task ready-made for a bipartisan solution!


[Part 3 of my series “Islam: religion or political ideology?” is expected to be posted later in May.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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1 Response to CEOs over federal bureaucracies

  1. Daniel D. Hull says:

    Excellent assessment of a monumental challenge, i.e. finding truly qualified people to serve as Secretaries of federal government agencies. Trouble is, politics has become so nasty, it must be getting much more difficult with each succeeding administration to find such people that are willing to put up with the nasty attacks by the media and the opposing political party. Who really wants to put themselves and their family through four or eight years of hell?

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