Integrity and Competence in Government

Who will build the more capable and trustworthy federal government?

Go straight to The Bottom Line

On November 4th or sometime (hopefully) shortly thereafter, either Donald Trump or Joe Biden will begin the work of identifying the individuals who will fill a range of important positions in the next Administration. If Donald Trump wins the presidency, some of these individuals will already be in place, but significant turnover is still likely. If Joe Biden wins, then he and his team will be building fresh. 

Setting aside the question of whether the tilt is Republican or Democratic, which candidate is more likely to build a government that can skillfully develop strategy, manage complexity, and assess and mitigate risk in a manner that best advances the goals of protecting the country and helping its people to build better lives for themselves?

Most of us can probably agree that fair and honest government should have these dimensions:

  • It should be made of people who are highly competent and have expertise in the jobs that need to be done.
  • It should be fully staffed in order to ensure that it has the capacity and bandwidth to do its job.
  • Its people should understand that they work for all of us as citizens of United States, not for special interest groups or individuals with a certain perspective (including the President), and that they have a responsibility to pursue their responsibilities with honesty and without misplaced loyalty or malfeasance.

What is Donald Trump’s Record?

Admittedly, aspects of the answer to this question may depend to some extent on one’s partisan perspective. However, certain criteria can be objectively evaluated to gain insights into Donald Trump’s record staffing his government. One measure would be the degree to which key positions are fully staffed. Currently, there are 757 executive branch positions that require Senate confirmation. As of September 21st, fully a quarter of these positions – 226 in all – are not filled, according to a database tracker maintained  by The Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service:

No nomineeAwaiting nominationFormally nominatedConfirmed

Consider just one of these job types with a high number of vacancies – that of an Inspector General, a position established in 1978 as part of federal reforms following the Watergate scandal. These positions sit within an Agency but do not report to the Secretary. They are independent and exist to ensure fraud, waste, and abuse are reported as necessary; to identify the need for corrective legislation; evaluate the effectiveness of government programs and policies; and to protect whistleblowers. In a way, they are the “internal affairs” office for federal agencies – the “citizen’s representatives” to make sure that their government servants are working for the general welfare, and not on some other agenda. The list of agencies which have NO sitting Inspector General and no nominee for the position (as of May 5th) includes:

  • Department of the Treasury
  • International Trade Commission
  • Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation
  • Intelligence Community
  • Department of State
  • Department of Labor

A second objective measure might be the degree to which there is turnover on the president’s team – either because individuals elect to leave, or because they are forced to. A certain amount of turnover is normal; an excessive amount might indicate a range of problems in the administration. 

The Brookings Institution has tracked turnover in initial four-year administrations dating back to President Reagan. Turnover in the Trump administration is the very highest, at 91% (meaning that more than nine of every ten positions has turned over at least once).  Reagan’s first four years are the next highest, at 78%; turnover in the first four years of the Obama-Biden administration was 71%.  A separate Brookings analysis, limited just to cabinet-level positions, found that in its first three years, the Trump administration had experienced ten separate position turnovers, while in its full initial four-year term, Obama-Biden experienced just two. 

Clearly, by any measure, there is a lack of stability in the Trump administration.

Brookings Institution chart

A third measure might be the degree to which industry lobbyists – generally considered to be a part of “the swamp” – are brought into positions within the government. A ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Investigations analysis tracked this measure, and found that at the halfway point of Trump’s first term, his administration had hired one lobbyist for every 14 political appointments made, a total of 281 lobbyists on board. This is four times the number than the Obama-Biden administration had after six years in office.  Furthermore, the analysis showed that the Trump administration’s former lobbyists are often involved in regulating the very same industries they worked for – and presumably might be loyal to.

What would Biden Do?

The only factual data available about Joe Biden’s record in staffing a complex organization is the data from the Obama-Biden administration, where Joe Biden served as vice president. He did, however, serve as chairman of president-elect Obama’s transition team, and so was heavily involved in all cabinet-level appointments and the filling out of a range of other positions. Therefore, it’s reasonable to ascribe some of the staffing stability of the Obama-Biden administrations, as compared above to the Trump administration, to his guidance and influence. Furthermore, given his many years in the federal government serving as a U.S. senator, as well as vice president, it’s fair to assume that Joe Biden brings a healthy respect for the importance of professional competency and continuity in the staffing of key roles throughout a broad range of different government agencies.

The Bottom Line

Before ascending to the presidency, Donald J. Trump ran a private sector organization, named for himself, wherein he demanded complete and unquestioning loyalty from his staff. It is fair to say that as President, in selecting and retaining (or dismissing) staff for the executive branch of government, Donald J. Trump continues to value loyalty over all other criteria. He has essentially sought to implement a complete make-over of the federal government, effectively forcing out long time, professionally expert civil servants who understand the complexities of governing, in favor of individuals whose degree of competence often comes with a decided slant towards a view he favors, and who he expects to remain fully loyal to his personal goals and objectives. When he gets pushback from competent appointees, as he did from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Defense James Mattis or Chief of Staff John Kelly, he simply fires the individual in question and moves on to someone else. 

It might be said that many of Donald Trump’s more fervent supporters have their own “healthy disrespect” for government, and hence for this group, Trump’s approach to governmental staffing may be perfectly acceptable or perhaps even desirable. However, it is also likely true that for supporters of Joe Biden – and, in fact, for a broad slice of Republicans who hold conservative values but also believe deeply in the importance of stable, professional government – Trump’s approach to staffing his administration rings loud bells of alarm.  

Those who fall into an undecided camp with respect to the upcoming election would do well to consider the risk that a second-term Trump presidency, free of any constraints imposed by the prospect of seeking further election, might bring a level of havoc we have not seen before, to the way we organize and staff our government – with consequences for all Americans.