What happens when political appointees circle the wagons?

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

Recent news about infighting among political appointees at the Department of Veterans Affairs might surprise some folks who thought an administration’s appointees would be unified in their approaches to issues. Having been on both the career and the political sides, I can say definitively that infighting among political appointees is not unique to the Trump administration or to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Disunity among politicals sends a mixed message to the career staff, the public and the Hill and it can lead to challenges in accomplishing the mission. There are several reasons it happens, and they tend to be the same regardless of the party or agency involved. Here are three of the most common:

The way political appointments are made. Some political appointments are controlled by agency heads, in consultation with the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO). For example, an agency head typically gets to pick his/her Chief of Staff and closest advisors. Those jobs are usually either Schedule C appointments (GS-15 and below) or noncareer SES. Even then, the White House is involved in the appointments. In many cases, the candidates for the jobs are identified by the PPO. Senate-confirmed presidential appointments (PAS) are far more tightly controlled by the PPO, because the president is the one who has the authority to nominate and appoint them. The degree to which an agency head can influence the nominations for PAS jobs varies, depending on the administration and the clout of the agency head. Some agency heads get an agreement to choose key people or have veto power over PAS nominations, while others either do not know to ask for that, or do not have the political horsepower to get it. The way they are appointed leads to some conflicts among the political appointees. I have heard many appointees say “I was appointed by the same president that s/he was” or something similar. The idea, often driven by ego, is that the agency head did not make the appointment and therefore is not really the appointee’s boss. That attitude is not limited to one party. I have heard it from both Democrats and Republicans. In one case at the Department of Commerce during the Clinton administration, an Assistant Secretary refused to follow an order from the Deputy Secretary, and even put his refusal in writing. Needless to say, neither the Secretary nor the Deputy Secretary were amused. Given the close relationship between Secretary Daley and President Clinton, the Assistant Secretary realized he had gone too far and backed down. That leads to the second reason.

How political appointees are fired. Political appointees have virtually no right to due process. If the administration wants to get rid of an appointee, it is usually a simple matter of saying “you’re fired” and away they go. There is nothing wrong with that. The jobs are policymaking in nature and the purpose of political appointments is for the president and other senior officials to have advisors that they can trust. The problem is the attitude that some appointees have regarding who their boss is. Yes, PAS are nominated and appointed by the president. But that does not mean they report to the president. They report to an agency head or other official who is responsible for running all or part of an agency. Because the appointees are appointed by the president rather than the agency head, the agency head cannot simply fire a PAS. The White House has to approve and that approval is not guaranteed. Presidents appoint people for many reasons — some personal, some political, and some based on qualifications, stature and other considerations. The factors that drive an appointment may make firing an appointee messy. For example, firing someone whose appointment was made to appease a particular special interest may create a political backlash for an administration. Appointees know that, and sometimes push the boundaries because they know it gives them some small degree of job security. Agency heads get caught in the middle, and may end up with an appointee who they cannot fire and do not trust. In most cases, if it comes down to supporting an agency head or a subordinate appointee, presidents will side with the agency head. Most cases — not all.

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Policy differences. Political jobs are, by their nature, policymaking positions. Not all Republicans have the same views on important policy matters, nor do all Democrats. They often disagree and sometimes those disagreements are intense. I have seen political appointees in loud and sometimes nasty discussions about policy differences. I have seen political appointees going behind the back of the agency head to argue their views to the White House, or outside interests, or to members of congress or congressional staff. I have seen them leak information to the press to try to drive policy in the direction they think is best. Some of that is to be expected. Policy sausage-making can be ugly. In the end, it may result in policy decisions that are more coherent and defensible, or it can result in policy that is exactly the opposite. Policymaking can be a full contact sport, and people who are easily intimidated probably should not participate. That does not mean the game playing that sometimes happens is healthy. It is not, and the harm to an administration will generally far outweigh any benefits.

“Circling the wagons” is usually thought of as an act of unity and defense. But when a group of people circle the wagons and start shooting toward the middle, the outcome is usually not so good. I have watched that happen with political appointees, career executives and general and flag officers. In every case, the organization was far better off when the infighting stopped and the focus on the mission was restored.

Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.