With the prospect of a second emboldened Trump administration on offer, the administrative state is under attack. How well did the bureaucracy deal with Trump appointees? Was there really a resistance in a “deep state”? And how much are career civil servants affected by chaos and turnover in the political class that sit above them? 

Jaime Kucinskas finds limited and ineffectual resistance of administrators under Trump, even among those alarmed by his actions, with employees still highly committed to the goals of their agencies.

Amanda Rutherford finds that upper-level bureaucrats actually report higher satisfaction when they face political vacancies and they are less likely to want to leave. That suggests chaos at the top may not lead to wholesale degradation.

Guests: Jaime Kucinskas, Hamilton College; Amanda Rutherford, Indiana 

Studies: “Walking the Moral Tightrope“; “Vacancies among appointees in U.S. federal agencies” 


Matt Grossmann: How Bureaucrats Deal with Political Chaos Above, this week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. With the prospect of a second emboldened Trump administration on offer, the administrative state is under attack. How well did the bureaucracy deal with the first Trump administration? Was there really a resistance in a, quote, unquote, “deep state”? And how much are career civil servants really affected by chaos and turnover in the political class that sit above them? This week, I talked to Jaime Kucinskas of Hamilton College about her American Journal of Sociology article with Yvonne Zylan, Walking the Moral Tightrope. She finds limited and ineffectual resistance of administrators during the Trump administration, even among those alarmed by Trump’s actions, with employees still highly committed to the goals of their agencies. I also talked to Amanda Rutherford of Indiana about her Governance article with Taha Hameduddin, Vacancies among appointees in U.S. federal agencies. She finds that upper-level bureaucrats actually report higher satisfaction when they face political vacancies, and they are less likely to want to leave. That suggests chaos at the top may not lead to wholesale agency degradation. So perhaps we should not expect agency dissemination, but we also can’t expect much resistance. I asked both about possible Schedule F reforms to further politicize the bureaucracy and whether it might be different this time. Let’s start with my interview with Kucinskas, which uses interviews to explore the resistance, or lack thereof, inside the Trump administration. So what were the biggest findings and takeaways from your new article, Walking the Moral Tightrope?

Jaime Kucinskas: Thanks for asking and for your interest in this study. And so, I think the first takeaway for me was that you have to understand career civil servants’ experiences working within this really complicated institution, and that I think a lot of laypeople look at morality and they think, “Oh, this is simple. Do you do what’s right or do you do what’s wrong?” And philosophers will hearken to the trolley problem of like, “Here’s a situation. How do you decide what to do and what the best thing and the right thing to do is?” But what I found that in the state is that it’s not so simple. And so, I’ve been reading a lot of Dwight Waldo. So Dwight Waldo was a career civil servant and also a public administration scholar, actually down the road from me. He was at the Maxwell School in Syracuse. And so, he actually lays out all these different ethical obligations that career civil servants aspire to uphold. And so, you start with the Constitution. You want to uphold the Constitution. You want to uphold law. You want to be loyal to your nation or your country. In the U.S., we want to support democracy. And then you’ve got agency missions, agency norms. You’ve got the profession that you were trained under. So if you are a scientist or if you are a lawyer, it’s loyalty to doing what’s right by those professions.

And then you kind of get the bigger ones that might not be tied directly to the country, but they also might be, so like loyalty to a God, loyalty to serving the world, putting the public welfare first. And then you’ve got your friends, yourself, all these different things. And so, when you think about working for the state, it’s always complicated, not just in the Trump administration. But under the Trump administration, it was particularly, I think, challenging for the career civil servants, because this was a president who hoped for higher standards of loyalty to him and to his administration and his appointees than other presidents. And you could see that that came over and above other things that career civil servants hold dear to them, like following this bureaucratic process in making decisions, the Constitution. They swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, supporting law, so all of these different things. It was challenging to do all of it for career civil servants. And so, I saw they were in all of these different kinds of binds and they try to, what I say, walk a moral tightrope between these different ethical obligations, and it was really hard for them.

Matt Grossmann: So let’s talk about the logistics of what you actually did. You interviewed 77 people. It seems like some of them you interviewed more than once, and a total… There were three different waves of interviews. So how did you set this up, and what was the structure of your conversations?

Jaime Kucinskas: Yeah. So it was hard to get people to talk to me, so I’ll start there. I learned that very quickly. So in 2017, when I started thinking about this project, I was wondering, “Who might resist this administration?” And there was all of these protests that were happening on the Mall. And so, I had two teams of researchers that went to the science march and the climate change march and gave out surveys. And my two teams collected 391 surveys. And out of those 391 surveys, only 12 people said, “I am a federal civil servant, and I am willing to talk to you in an interview.” And of those 12 people, only 7 actually talked to me. So that was a sign. And I know, especially since where a lot of people I talked to, a considerable amount did attend protests at some point during the administration. So especially at the science march and the climate march, I think there probably were more civil servants there, but I realized that people are not going to automatically trust me. And so, what I did next, and I started this project with Yvonne Zylan, who’s a political sociologist and a lawyer. She was in my department at the time. And so, we worked our networks. And so, we talked to people about this study. We network, so she’s being a lawyer. We networked with some of her legal networks. We met with professors of public administration in universities around D.C., who then connected us with their alumni.

And so, here, we were getting a wider sample of people, so people who weren’t necessarily more likely to resist the administration, but people just working in different executive and independent agencies under the Trump administration. And then from there, we snowball-sampled more, and then I picked up some more people from a conference I went to or a Facebook posting or a couple other things. But yeah, for the most part, those were the ways that we connected with the people. And so, I interviewed 66 career civil servants and contractors who are working in executive and independent agencies. I did have higher clusters in some of the most politicized and contentious agencies, like the EPA or HHS or the State Department. Also, to get a baseline, I spoke with 11 former employees who’d worked in particularly contested areas of the government in the past, so people who’d worked at the EPA under Anne Gorsuch’s leadership or DOJ in the Civil Rights Division under George W. Bush’s administration. So I had a sense of how did this play out under other administrations, and then I could compare it to the Trump administration.

Matt Grossmann: So yeah, there is something that we should kind of expect when a new president goes in, especially one that is not very aligned with the bureaucracy in general or with the mostly Democratic-leaning officials and some agencies. So some of this we might have expected under any new Republican administration. So how much was unique to the Trump administration, and how much do you think it was due to Trump just being an inexperienced politico and bringing in inexperienced people versus having an agenda that they were opposed to versus some kind of authoritarian impulse that they recognized?

Jaime Kucinskas: Yeah. So that’s a great question. Actually, I didn’t mention. So the people I talked to also when I asked them, they said politically, they identified as ranging from being centrist to Democrat, some being reluctant Democrats. So I didn’t speak to Republicans. They didn’t trust me enough to speak to me as an academic. And so, I think that’s also important, is I was speaking to people who veered onto the left or more progressive side of the political spectrum. So this is where it’s tricky as a sociologist. So I was basically trying to watch what was happening through my interviews and their experiences over the course of the administration. I did three waves of data. So I talked to some people, about 40 people in 2017, over 60 people in 2018, and then I did a last wave of people in the most dynamic parts of the government in 2019 to ’20, and that wave was cut a little short from COVID. But yeah, so how do you parse out what is a specific Trump phenomenon and what is an experience or the chaos that people are reporting? And so, what I did was I went through, I culled through the interviews that I did, and I was basically, as social scientists do, coding the data and trying to get a sense of what are the conditions that people are reporting working under. And so, from there, I could get a sense of, in the most politicized locations in the government, the people who are feeling really, really stressed about working there, like what were they experiencing. And so, some of it tied back to Trump appointees’ leadership styles. And actually, I’m working on a book on the project, and the book’s called The Loyalty Trap. And so, I kind of go through what are the conditions of the people that experience these loyalty traps. And so, the Trump appointees and the places that these people were working, they tended to contradict professional or institutional values, norms, and structures. They tended to exhibit suspicion towards the employees, career employees. People I talked to reported political appointees threatening their use of voice or even asking questions through retaliatory behaviors, like firing, demotion, or isolating them.

The people I talked to reported some Trump appointees having unusually high expectations of loyalty to the president and the administration, and they also reported political leadership excising them from decision-making processes and failing to listen to the expert advice. And so, some political scientists might say, “Oh, this sounds kind of familiar over the last couple of decades.” It’s kind of a classic administrative presidency playbook. But I think with Trump, the expectations of loyalty to the president and to some of the appointees was higher than people reported experiencing under other administrations, especially more recent ones. But then you add in the chaos. And so, the chaos, it’s unclear exactly where some of the chaos is coming from. So the chaos, they reported being tied to fractured appointed leadership, so infighting between different appointees or Trump influencers and not knowing what to do when it wasn’t clear where they should be headed, or whether some project manager said, “I don’t know whether I can even support publicly my own project work, because one member of the Trump family likes it and this other appointee doesn’t like it. So what do you do? Do I just not talk about my work publicly? Maybe.” So they got in these kinds of binds. I heard a lot of people reporting unclear communication from the top throughout the organization, throughout the different levels of the organization. And then I had a good number of people reporting incidents of sheer incompetence, so things like, “These appointees I’m working under don’t understand some of the basic things of how to do work in this area of the government,” or some of it was just even simple things, so like reports, instead of having numbers in chronological order, having haphazard numbers that weren’t checked. So a range of different examples of incompetence. But what I saw for the people working under the Trump administration in the most politicized areas was like a swirling of all these things. And so, they’re kind of entangled in their experiences.

Matt Grossmann: So what examples were there of employees actually practicing resistance, and how effective were they?

Jaime Kucinskas: So I talk in the paper and a little bit in the book too about a range of different forms of resistance. And so, step one is, you start theoretically as a scholar with the question of like, “What’s resistance anyway?” And scholars will say, “Okay. Well, it’s resistance if it’s pushing back against authority or if there’s an intention or a behavior that’s doing that.”

And so, that’s tricky with the government, because there’s often a baseline of friction between appointees and government civil servants who’ve been doing their work for extended periods of time, and an administration comes in and they want to change things. So the question is, when is it resistance that’s kind of beyond normal? And that’s kind of hard to discern. But if you look, there’s a couple different ways that people were describing deliberate resistance with an intent to resist. So one common way was framing. Some people reported not being able to use the word climate change anymore. So they might say, “I am going to do some environmental mitigation work,” or make up some other kind of way of describing, “I’m going to do community remediation,” or something else that didn’t have that word that the appointees might just reject. So that was one way that people did it. But then other people would tell me, “Oh, we do that with every administration shift.” And so, that also blurred into some normal practices that career civil servants reported doing without a spirit of resistance. So other things… In the scholarship, there’s documentation of people doing slow-walking or neglect, and people will tell you, “Oh, this is one thing career civil servants can do.” But I actually found that not many people reported doing that because that cut against their professional culture of serving the government.

So that struck me as rare. One way they said they might resist would be backroom conversations, and that might even just be like workplace gossip. So that doesn’t have a lot of teeth. It didn’t seem to have a lot of teeth or an impact. Another thing people reported was just documenting when they saw appointees doing things they thought was wrong or deviant. And so, they thought that felt like resistance because they thought the appointees wouldn’t want them to do it. And then I guess moving more into overt resistance or what I come to call moral courage in the book, that was a very, very small group of people, and I’m thinking like five people. So not very many people. This wasn’t common. So one example that I talk about in the paper was someone who, when they felt protected by an appointee, a Republican appointee several levels above them, they felt more comfortable as a lawyer speaking up and saying, “What this other appointee wants is actually illegal,” or not signing a document that had been edited to say the opposite of what she had wanted to say. So those kinds of behaviors where it was palpable to appointees that this person was in disagreement with them, and this person actually got in some shouting matches with appointees. So that was very, very unusual. The other example I have that I talk about in the paper and also in the book I’m writing is how, in a vacuum of power, sometimes career civil servants could try to keep doing their job as they saw fit in the absence of leadership, even if they thought it cut against the direction they thought the appointees would’ve wanted them to go. And so, I profile someone who did that, but then as soon as an appointee came in to a leadership position over him, you could see him kind of cutting back, and other people in his work group also, what he said, was aligning with the appointee. So in terms of the people who actually protested, what I saw was that there’s these windows in which they felt they might be efficacious or they had enough protection to be able to speak up for what they thought was right, which often aligned with work they’d done in the past in the government, but then that window could close if they didn’t feel safe.

Matt Grossmann: So people in the Trump administration talked about there being a deep state that was working at cross- purposes from them, and some of it does cross over a bit with your interests. I think they were talking mostly about the national security arena, so I don’t know if you found anything different there. But I guess how different is what you found from this popular suspicion that conservatives have that somewhere in the lower levels of the bureaucracy, there are people working against their agenda?

Jaime Kucinskas: So this is a complicated question. So what is the deep state? So I’m going to defer. So Stanford international studies scholar Francis Fukuyama talks about the history of the deep state as being tied to countries like Egypt and Turkey, where the military and security agencies try to secretly manipulate state functioning. And then, so he goes on to argue that the U.S. is, by contrast, very transparent, not only with weak democracies, but also with other liberal democracies. He also argues that the U.S. readily can be controlled by elected political leaders. And so, political scientists are suggesting that these claims of a deep state are really not using the meaning that political scientists would use of what a deep state is, but they’re using it to raise fears and apprehensions among the American public.

I think that there also could be a more popular understanding that Trump supporters are likely to use, that the U.S. is a deep state in the fact that it’s a really complicated state with a lot of layers and a lot of employees that don’t turn over. And so, that perception is accurate. But it’s also important to mention, and I think Michael Lewis’s book, The Fifth Risk, does a really good job of showing this, that the contemporary U.S. government is dealing with a lot of really complicated social problems. And so, people at NOAA are predicting the weather to protect Americans from natural disasters, and you’ve got nuclear waste, and you want scientists or people who have scientific knowledge to deal with some of these complex problems. And I think that a lot of Americans actually don’t understand the range of problems and the depth of problems that the state deals with to protect Americans. Yeah. So were the people that I was talking to operating as a deep state? It’s not just me.

I’ve had other people read my data or my analyses to kind of check it before it goes public, just to make sure I’m not being biased. And what people have consistently said, even more strongly than I’ve said when they’ve read the accounts, or my accounts of the accounts, is that it’s striking that these government workers I talk to really care about trying to do the right thing and keep the state stable and maintain continuity across administrations and do their job as best they can, as best they see fit, given their professional knowledge and work experience. And so, I can’t say that enough, because I think that’s the story that keeps kind of falling by the wayside. It’s not sexy for sound bites for the media. Career civil servants really care about their jobs, and they work really hard and they’re really smart. People aren’t saying that enough. And I think it’s kind of trite, but that was one of the major findings of my study. And so, it’s not like they’re maliciously hiding things. And actually, one… I forget if this quote was in the article you read, but it’s in the book, where one career civil servant said, “If I wanted to leak something, I just leak it. I wouldn’t be telling you that you should correct course on this, because you’re doing something wrong that you shouldn’t be doing.” So there were cases where, I think, also the definition of leaking was changing in the government, where some appointees were calling leaking things that were publicly available information that NGOs had picked up from postings on government websites and other kinds of things. And what the people I talked to also suggested was that some of the leaking was coming from appointees themselves, which you could trace through the meetings and who was in the meetings and things like that.

Matt Grossmann: So at the end of the Trump administration, they tried to implement a Schedule F reform that moved a lot of people to be political appointees or appointed by political appointees, and they have even more elaborate plans to do so should Trump or another Republican be elected next year. We should expect them to be kind ready to go in this effort to change the complexion of the bureaucracy and making it more susceptible to presidential influence. So they appear to think that something did go wrong with the bureaucracy following their goals in the first Trump administration. What do you think that they are trying to do with this?

Jaime Kucinskas: Thank you for bringing this up. I think this is an issue everyone should be talking about. It’s like, normally, Americans don’t really talk about the state during elections, but I think because of Schedule F, we should be. So to give a little background on what I know about it, so NAPA hosted a forum talking about this on June 29th. And James Sherk, who is the director of the Center of American Freedom at the American First Policy Institute, and he was a special assistant to the president in the Trump administration, and Michael Rigas, he’s the director of the American Leadership Initiative at the America First Policy Institute, and he was the acting director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in the Trump administration, they both spoke at this forum. And so, I learned a little bit about how they were seeing the government through what they shared. And what James Sherk said was, he’s making this argument that the Constitution vests power in the president elected by the people, and he believes that federal employees were resisting the president’s initiatives. And he thinks that if they don’t serve the president, they should be fired. It should be more easy to fire them. And then, so Rigas was saying that he just wants to remove people who can’t or won’t improve at their jobs. And so, they’re kind of offering these different perspectives.

Listening to them, what struck me was they’re glossing over all of the experiences that people shared with me working under Trump appointees, especially in some of the parts of the government that weren’t functioning very well and that were most politicized. And so, I think that they’re suggesting there’s far more resistance by career civil servants than eyewitnessed among the people that I talked to. And you’d expect more resistance among the people I talked to because I went to protests to try to get them to talk to me, and I talked to Democrats and I talked to centrists. I didn’t talk to Republicans. So you’d think if the protest was happening, I’d be capturing it in my study. And as I said, even the most “resistant,” quote, unquote, or morally courageous cutting against the administration’s kind of bent, they also all reported working with Trump appointees to support a good number of their different initiatives. So it wasn’t like there were people who just were really just protesting within the government. I didn’t see that.

I worry that without civil service protections, that some of these highly trained and knowledgeable people who’ve worked with chemicals in the government for decades, some of them, it might be more possible to fire some of these people. So some of the early estimates… So OMB was the first agency to report how many people might qualify under Schedule F, and it was like 88%. So we’re talking not only the people doing policy, but lawyers. Basically, the people I talk to could be more easily fired under a Schedule F policy, if it were reinstated. And so, after talking to these people about… In interviews, I’d ask, “How did you get into government service? What’s your work history? Tell me about the work you do every day.” And so, after learning a lot about these people’s lives and the work they do and how they approach it, I would be very concerned if these very talented and skilled and knowledgeable people basically could be more easily fired and then loyalists would basically replace them. And so, I did see that starting to happen under the Trump administration through the experiences and eyes of the people I talked to.

So people across some different agencies reported that… One person actually said, “The people we’re hiring at my agency, they wouldn’t be on the top 3,000 list of any other administration, Democrat or Republican.” So they’re talking about people being hired from Liberty University, so not Yale or Harvard or Johns Hopkins, or the other places around D.C. So people within the agencies didn’t think they were getting the cream of the crop. And actually, so Andrew Kloster of the American Moment, who is a former deputy general counsel for the Office of Personnel Management, has said, in who American Moment is trying to recruit for the next Republican administration, he says, “I think the first thing you need to hire for is loyalty. The funny thing is you can learn policy, but you can’t learn loyalty.” So that’s a pretty powerful quote. And some context for that too. I know we’ve talked a lot about loyalty over the last time I’ve been talking to you. But early on, when I started this project, I was in a writing group with a scholar from Turkey, Yagmur Karakaya, who is now at Yale, and Chenyu Wang, who is a Chinese scholar at Hamilton. And early on, it was very clear to me, like, “The American government is very different from the Turkish government or the Chinese government.” And one of the things that we distinguish in talking about my project was that one of the big differences is that in the American government, as we knew it, people were hired based on meritocratic backgrounds and skills and expertise and credentials, whereas what they reported seeing in Turkey and China more was government bureaucrats being fired and more loyal people being hired in their stead. And so, if we start doing that in our government, if we weaken the civil servant protections and replace the people who have long been working in these different positions with people that are just loyal to the president, then that’s lurching us, I think, towards autocracy, and that worries me greatly.

Matt Grossmann: So how real is that threat? Some people may look at the first Trump administration and say, “We have already been through it. If Trump is elected again, we will make our way through, just like the bureaucrats in your study.” But others might say, “Wow, we really ignored the warning, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a real check on authoritarian impulses. If the next Trump administration wants to move us in a more authoritarian direction, the bureaucrats will go along.” What do you think?

Jaime Kucinskas: As the people I talked to reported and also as Michael Lewis’s book reports, the transition to the Trump administration did not go well. So the initial planned transition teams, they were basically stopped and then new ones were brought on. So the transition took longer to get the Trump teams in place. So that’s lost time for Trump to accomplish the things he want to accomplish, step one. Step two, and this is something that you’ll hear Trump administration officials and perhaps members-to- be of a potential future administration saying, is that they picked some Republicans who had served in prior administrations. They picked some people who were more moderate or not as loyal as they would’ve hoped or they hope for the next administration. So you had some leaders like Milley or Comey or people who they’ve come out against since, who were trying to, I think, dig into this ethical landscape and obligations of the state, like career civil servants. Yeah. And you could see warning signs, warning bells coming from historians and political scientists about the Trump administration even in 2017 and ’18. And so, there’s bestselling books, like Levitsky and Ziblatt, like How Democracies Die. They’re warning the American public that this is a risk. But even as a sociologist just starting to study this, you don’t want to believe them. I think as an American, you want to believe in American exceptionalism that it won’t get so bad here. And actually, admittedly, I wasn’t using the words autocracy, so a leader who has concentrated power and expects unquestioning obedience, and I wasn’t using the words authoritarianism early in the project, because it just seemed hyperbolic. It seemed like, “Oh, this is the U.S. government.” But the more you watch what unfolded, it was like, “Oh my gosh, this is what Levitsky and Ziblatt were warning us about.” And I think for the public, the culminating moment should have been the January 6th insurrection. Right? And for some reason, that hasn’t seemed to bother as many people as I would have thought.

Matt Grossmann: While Kucinskas interviewed individuals who might be expected to resist, Amanda Rutherford took a broader survey-based look at turnover and attitudes over several administrations before Trump. Let’s turn to my interview with Rutherford, starting with some more traditional concerns of public administration research. Can agencies retain morale and staff? So what were the biggest findings and takeaways from your new article on federal vacancies?

Amanda Rutherford: Great question. So Taha and I, in our research, we focus on several years of federal vacancies in the U.S. It does not include our current, the Biden administration or Trump administration. But what we find is, essentially, where you have a vacancy at the top of the agency, potentially in the second-highest appointment, though we actually see an inclination that employees tend to report higher levels of job satisfaction and they actually may be less likely to leave the organization. In other words, that they would be more likely to be retained in their organization. The vacancies we’re looking at are really the top one or two individuals who are tasked with these agencies. So they’re political appointees who would be confirmed by the Senate, and we’re looking at essentially how these positions might shape the rest of the agency or the employees in that agency in particular ways. I think we talk a lot about this conversation of, say, careerists in the bureaucracy versus those who are appointed, but we don’t necessarily put a lot of teeth to that. And so, one way that we’ve thought about doing this given data that are available is thinking about how could we look at levels of satisfaction, which, in some cases, indicate how loosely we debate whether that affects how they do their job or what the outcomes of the agency will be, and there’s a lot of debate on that. Right? But it at least indicates something to us, one, that the appointees who are put in charge of these agencies matter in particular ways that I think I find particularly interesting, but also that this is something that… We tend to see vacancies as a negative thing, that we look at those. We see the numbers. We might worry about them. But in some cases, maybe, some of the concerns are not necessarily as hard and fast or as founded as we might think that they are when we compare it to something like the private sector and what our norms might be there. That’s all that I thought-

Matt Grossmann: Yeah. So every time there’s a high level of vacancies, like there was in some parts of the Trump administration, we see a bunch of press reports about how this is a problem. So are you suggesting that there’s not much wrong here, or how should we interpret your findings?

Amanda Rutherford: Sure. I don’t think that we want to say it’s not a problem, but I think we’re identifying at least one area where we might not have so much to worry about. Right? If we look at vacancies in general, we might point to concerns about, are there weaker relationships with other agencies or external groups? Does it lessen the legitimacy of the agency to have an acting head rather than a permanent head? Right? If we compare this, Dave Lewis did this very nicely once, to, say, Fortune 100s, it feels kind of incomprehensible to say, “They’re just going to have no one at the helm.” Right? That seems a little unfathomable. Here though, given the different types of political scenarios and the environment in the agencies, it’s kind of a balancing act. Right? Do you have lesser legitimacy, but do you now have careerists who maybe feel one layer less of that political pressure, or they feel like they’re being pushed in a particular direction to a lower degree? Do they have more freedom to use their expertise and do their job? I don’t think we answer all of those questions in this one particular study, but I think it’s a reminder to say we shouldn’t immediately jump to a conclusion that all things about vacancies are negative. And also, what does that mean for how we have started to turn the conversation around vacancies into one that has to do with strategy that presidents might utilize in different ways, not necessarily for bettering the job satisfaction of employees, but that these are particular levers that we can’t just say, “Well, we’re not being strategic about them,” or “We’re just ignoring and assuming that they have these all-around negative effects”?

Matt Grossmann: So how common are these top-level vacancies?

Amanda Rutherford: Great question.

Matt Grossmann: And what are the main reasons they occur?

Amanda Rutherford: Yeah. I think it depends on the point at which we are in a president’s term. And so, many sources will say, “Well, let’s look at the first 100 days,” because in theory, a president could say, “Let’s start with a clean slate, and let’s restart all of these appointees.” That rarely happens. Right? We know that we might have some need for continuity. But there are about 4,000 key positions that a president is really tasked with appointing individuals to those positions. About 1,200 of those are going to be confirmed through the Senate and are kind of the most powerful. Right? So we’re really only talking about 1% of the federal workforce. But when we think about the power these positions have, it’s quite large. And the degree to which the president appoints these positions, relative to other countries, is also large. Right? So when we say… I think it depends on what data points you look at. Right? 1% of the federal workforce sounds quite small, but the extent of power that these positions have and their relative nature compared to other countries is quite large. And so, I think when you look at the vacancies here, Trump appointed individuals slower than the few presidents before him. I think Biden tried to turn that a little bit. But we also see that vacancies, once someone is in a position, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to stay there. In fact, they turn over really every few years. And so, for example, in the last year of Trump’s presidency, there were close to 150 positions that did not have anyone named to them. No one was nominated. They were sitting there vacant. If you look at Biden right now, he’s under 100 in terms of just sitting vacancies. And I don’t know if he’ll be trying to name anyone to those vacancies in the coming months. But you do see that it’s at least less than what they started with, but we’re never getting to where we think we’re going to realize zero in terms of everything being full.

Matt Grossmann: And what about the level setting for your outcomes here? You’re looking at job satisfaction, employees considering leaving. But is there a problem that this is high in the federal government? How does it compare elsewhere? And is there any-

Amanda Rutherford: Yeah. So I think there certainly were concerns raised, pandemic and immediate post-pandemic, of declining rates of job satisfaction reported among federal employees. And we can actually chart this, given that federal agencies run these surveys right through the Office of Personnel Management, where we can track this, in some ways over time, to say, “Okay. We know, in general, some things about things like job satisfaction or empowerment 10, 12 years ago, and we can look at how that compares over time through today.” And so, we did see this kind of immediate dip there, which I think raises some concerns about… a few alarms about, “We’re worried about recruiting to the public sector already. We see that job satisfaction is going down. How do we alleviate that?” We also know it varies across these agencies. Right? I think it’s easy to look at federal agencies and kind of assume they’re monolithic, but, in fact, they’re not. And I think political scientists like us who study that are aware of that. I think even we sometimes can just be like federal agencies, one box, where we see… The NSF, for example, has one of the highest rates of job satisfaction. It’s above 80% among its employees, compared to other departments like, oh, I don’t know, Department of State, for example, are very low. Right? We get down to the 50 percentile in terms of… Right? That means one out of every two employees is reporting that they’re either somewhat or very satisfied in reporting their job satisfaction. And so, there’s some wide variation, I think, there when we look across these different agencies.

Matt Grossmann: So as you said, your data predate the Trump administration, but there’s-

Amanda Rutherford: Yeah. That’s correct.

Matt Grossmann: … a lot of concerns that were raised around the new Trump administration. So how much of this process do you think changed under Trump?

Amanda Rutherford: I think Trump more explicitly owned his use of this. I don’t think it is necessarily new. Right? So Anne O’Connell has done really great work looking through the last, say, 25, 30 years to show, in many cases, we have one-fourth of these positions that are vacant at any one point in time. They’re constantly turning and changing. But I think Trump very much owned it. Right? He’s kind of known for his quote of saying that having acting appointees gives him more flexibility, was the term he used, whereas I think other presidents weren’t quite as explicit. And so, it left it a little more in the gray area of how and whether they were utilizing these vacancies in particular ways or if it was just that it was a challenging process to approach. With Trump, we see that he’s very much thinking about his ability to put individuals in those positions, for at least short amount of times, that go around this nomination and confirmation procedure. And I think given that more explicit recognition, I think that we’ll see potentially more widespread use of that, and that’s my own opinion personally, by any one party, though the extent to which they explicitly recognize it will vary.

Matt Grossmann: So you use this Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and its predecessors. So tell us about the kind of literature that has developed from these surveys, what kind of picture it’s giving us of the bureaucracy-

Amanda Rutherford: Absolutely.

Matt Grossmann: … and what might be ignored in it.

Amanda Rutherford: Sure. So the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and its predecessor versions were never designed for scholarly use. They weren’t designed with saying, “Okay. How do academics want to study what federal employees are doing?” That said, in many cases, not all cases, there are at least some consistencies in questions that are asked, the answer options that are posed to respondents that we have over time. And so, it allows us to at least try to think about how to utilize that data for some types of questions. In many cases, the FEVS data have been used to think about both the determinants and effects of things like job satisfaction, turnover, job empowerment, leadership type, and often connecting that to things like agency performance. There’s a lot of discussions about how that’s limited, given that it’s one survey, and we are concerned about whether we pull all this information from a single survey rather than tie it to external information and the biases that could enter empirical analyses. Right? Many would argue that we should say, “Okay. If we measure this, we might see that employees who feel higher levels of empowerment ultimately perform better.” It’s still a bit on shaky grounds, because we also know that just because I say that I intend to turn over is not perfectly tied to whether I actually leave the organization. But now, we have more and more data over the past even decade where we can say, “Okay. We can not only measure whether you report your intent to turn over, but now we actually know whether you did leave, at least at the aggregate level.” Right? And so, we can do a little bit more to be creative in how we utilize the data. And I think that really helped foster the paper that Taha and I put together, where we said, “Okay. We have all these conversations that are potentially only growing, particularly during…” Right? We were writing this during the Trump presidency about vacancy. We have a whole nother set of people who are talking about and at least somewhat concerned about, “Who are we hiring in the federal workforce? Do they enjoy their jobs? Are we losing out to the private sector?” And so, we just kind of said that, “Okay. We can think about these data and we can connect them.” And it kind of bridges those two conversations. And it certainly doesn’t give us all the answers. It may even raise more questions, but I think can do so in a way that not only is a good use of data that might give other folks ideas, but can help us to think about both of those lines of thoughts together.

Matt Grossmann: So I also talked to a researcher about bureaucratic resistance during the Trump administration, and they go out of their way to find people who might be misaligned with the Trump administration or worried about the Trump administration’s actions, and still find that it’s pretty rare that they’ll take any action against the administration. And even if they do, it’s pretty, I guess, lackluster in emphasis. And one of the reasons is because these employees are still highly committed to the goals of their agencies, and they don’t think it’s impossible to achieve them regardless of what’s going on politically. So how well does that fit with your findings?

Amanda Rutherford: Yeah. No. Well, the first thing I think of when I hear this discussion with the Trump administration is we had a lot of these conversations with the Reagan administration as well, and the findings are very similar. Right? The employees, particularly of certain professions, had said, “I’m here to fulfill a particular duty, and I’m going to do that regardless of some of my personal feelings or the things that are changing around me.” I think another phenomena that we see here is that political change is kind of ingrained in the organizations where, for those of us who might work outside of a federal agency, it feels like it could be a shock to the system, when in fact, it’s something that they’re really used to because it occurs every few years potentially. And so, they’re exposed to it over and over again, and they’re much more accustomed to it, and potentially saying, “This might last for a few years, maybe up to eight. But ultimately, it’s not going to be so long-standing.” And I think then when you put that alongside the fact that these individuals are selecting into positions, in many cases, in agencies where there’s a mission that they do care about, whether that’s environmental protection or due process or whatever that may be, it allows them to at least have some vision of, “Some of these changes are not so long-standing as they might appear initially.”

Matt Grossmann: So at the end of the Trump administration, they tried to pass a reform to make a lot more federal officials be directly fireable and appointable by the president or presidential appointees. And they, by all accounts, are preparing to make this at the beginning of a new potential Trump administration should it occur. And that probably would be a lot of your survey respondents, would be people who would-

Amanda Rutherford: That’s correct.

Matt Grossmann: … newly be political appointees or fireable more directly. So how do they see the world that has led them to this, and what problems do you think they’re trying to solve?

Amanda Rutherford: Do you mean “they,” meaning the individual bureaucrats who would be affected by their dissembling?

Matt Grossmann: No, no. I mean, from the Trump administration perspective, what are they doing here? Why do you think that-

Amanda Rutherford: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think that there’s been… This is not necessarily new. It just hasn’t been taken on at the federal level to this degree, where this idea of bureaucrats are too protected and they can kind of underperform or even subvert what we’re asking them to do, and we can’t necessarily get rid of them very easily. And we even see states as experimental grounds for this, states like Georgia, Indiana, where I am, saying, “We can make parts of our public employees essentially at-will employees.” And it hasn’t just gone… It’s not really been something that’s salient right now. And so, in a sense, they’ve been successful in doing that.

If we take this to the federal scale, it’s simply the right or the conservative ideology, being able to say, “We are wary of these bureaucrats,” again, not new news. “And we just want to have the tools to be able to change them and make them at-will employees.” And there’s trade-offs to that, right? You can more easily get rid of someone if you want to identify them as poor-performing for valid or invalid reasons, but it also takes away some of those political protections where now I would have to be more concerned about, “How do I align with the party of those who are elected? And now, do I have more risk in my profession? What does that mean for recruitment into the public sector?”

Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you like this discussion, here are the episodes I recommend checking out next, all linked on our website: How Bureaucrats Make Good Policy, How Administrative Burdens Undermine Public Programs, Partisan Election Administrators Don’t Tip the Scales, The Resistance: Who is Protesting Trump and Are They Changing Public Views, and What Became of Never Trump Republicans. Thanks to Jaime Kucinskas and Amanda Rutherford for joining me. Please check out Walking the Moral Tightrope and Vacancies among appointees in U.S. federal agencies, and then listen in next time.