People On People On People

The Continued Thickening of Government

By Paul C. Light

The past half-century has witnessed a slow but steady thickening of the federal bureaucracy as Congress and presidents have added layer upon layer of political and career management to the hierarchy. Whereas John F. Kennedy entered office in 1961 in charge of seven cabinet departments, Donald Trump entered in 2017 in charge of fifteen. Whereas Kennedy’s cabinet departments had seventeen appointee layers to fill, Trump’s departments had seventy-one. Finally, whereas Kennedy’s layers had 451 political or career occupants, Trump’s had 3,265.

Counting Layers and Leaders

This thickening starts at the very top of government with the steady expansion in the number of titles at the top of the five compartments headed by full-time appointees listed in the federal government’s Executive Schedule: (I) secretaries, (II) deputy secretaries, (III) undersecretaries, (IV) assistant secretaries, and (V) administrators. Some of these positions are subject to Senate confirmation, while others are selected by the president as non-confirmed appointees or advanced upward into the five compartments as senior career executives.

The evidence of increased thickening comes from my inventories of the number of layers (titles) and leaders (titleholders) collected every six years between 1960 and 2016. The directories contain the titles, names, addresses, and phone numbers of all appointees who serve in the federal government’s departments and agencies, but my inventories focus exclusively on the layers and leaders of the five leadership compartments in the fifteen cabinet departments.

These inventories include only those titles with a direct link to the Senate-confirmed appointees with an executive schedule title such as chief of staff to the secretary, associate deputy secretary, principal deputy undersecretary, deputy assistant secretary, and assistant
deputy administrator.

According to these inventories, the federal hierarchy grew with few interruptions between 1960 and 2016. The thickening occurred in every department, regardless of mission or budget. Table 1 shows the inventory of titles open for occupancy in March 2016, while Table 2 shows the numbers of titles and occupants from 1960 to 2016.

Some of the titles may challenge credulity, but the March 2016 federal phone book included tongue twisters such as the associate principal deputy assistant secretary for regulatory and policy affairs at energy; associate assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at education; principal deputy associate attorney general and principal deputy assistant attorney general at Justice; and associate deputy assistant secretaries for logistics and supply chain management, human resource systems and analytics, and acquisition and logistics at Veterans Affairs. Past patterns suggest that these relatively new titles will spread to other departments as lower-level officers move up to match titles with their peers.

Table 2 shows the increased number of layers and leaders over time. The number of layers of leaders increased 318 percent between 1960 and 2016, while the number of leaders per layer rose 624 percent. There are no federal phone books dating back to the 1940s and 1950s, but it is safe to say that the federal government never had more layers of leaders or more leaders per layer than it did on January 20, 2017.

Presidential candidates rarely miss a chance to criticize big government and, once elected, often establish reform SWAT teams to create a government as good as its people (Jimmy Carter), launch a war on waste (Ronald Reagan), create a government that works better and costs less (Bill Clinton), force federal employees to compete against contract employees for work (George W. Bush), or drag the bureaucracy into the 21st century (Barack Obama). But
they always end their terms having created layers at the top of government or adding positions per layer. As noted shortly, Trump is unlikely to be the exception.

Reagan promised to abolish two of the fourteen departments he inherited but left office with fifteen; George W. Bush shaved three layers between 2004 and 2010 but had a net increase of seven; and as much as Obama complained about the duplication and overlap across government in his 2011 State of the Union address, he left office with more layers of leaders and leaders in layers.

Distance and Distortion

Even though the total number of leaders is often described as being an insignificant fraction of total federal employment, it creates a significant percentage of the layers between the top and bottom of federal departments and agencies.5 In 2002, for example, nurses at veterans’ hospitals reported upward through nine formal layers of command, including five at the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington. Air traffic controllers reported upward through twelve, including six at the Federal Aviation Administration headquarters in Washington.

The number of layers includes more than presidential appointees and their title extenders, however. When the informal layers composed of gatekeepers such as chiefs of staff are factored into the chain of command, veterans’ hospital nurses, air traffic controllers, and park rangers report upward through nineteen layers, including nine in Washington.

The chain of command becomes even more unwieldy when policy or budget decisions are passed down and back up within each compartment for review and sign-off before moving down to the next relevant compartment. When this complication is factored into the chain of command, veterans’ hospital nurses are receiving their policy guidance and budgets through forty-three policy and sixty-three budget sign-offs, including regional offices, districts, hospitals, and nurse supervisors.

Further Details

The number of layers and leaders is not even across the federal government. All departments thicken over time, but they do so at different rates depending in part on mission and budget. According to theories of what sociologists call “institutional isomorphism,” all organizations buffeted by the same economic, political, and social pressures will structure themselves to look alike. This instinct to look like the competition is common in many industries. Thus, even though some departments and agencies will be shorter and lighter than others at times, all things being equal, they will become more similar over time.

This theory is well illustrated in the movement of federal government departments and agencies toward common structures:

  1. The federal hierarchy has grown taller and wider over time as Congress, the president, and departments invented or extended titles. Of the seventy-one titles open for occupancy somewhere across the cabinet, twenty existed in seven departments in 2016, while another thirteen were in at least four departments.
  2. History strongly suggests that the new layers will spread as departments copy and compete to adopt perceived best practices—the first chief of staff to a cabinet secretary was created in 1981, spread to another ten departments by 1992, and could be found in the final four by 2016. Chiefs of staff account for thirteen of the seventy-one layers listed in Table 1. It seems presidential appointees are nobodies if they do not have a chief of staff, while chiefs of staff are nobodies if they do not have a deputy chief of staff.
  3. Departments vary significantly in height. The Defense Department had the tallest federal hierarchy in 2016, with thirty-seven layers. It was followed by Agriculture with thirty-one; Homeland Security with thirty; Education, Energy, Interior, and Treasury with twenty-eight each; Health and Human Services with twenty-seven; Transportation with twenty-six; Commerce with twenty-five; Justice with twentyfour; Labor and Veterans Affairs with twenty-one each; State with 16; and Housing and Urban Development with 15.
  4. Departments also vary significantly in width. The Defense Department had the largest number of senior officers in 2016 at 405. It was followed by Agriculture with 364; Health and Human Services with 340; Justice with 296; Homeland Security with 287; Treasury with 236; State with 214; Transportation with 204; Commerce with 191; Interior with 177; Energy with 175; Housing and Urban Development with 145; Education with 115; Veterans Affairs with 112; and Labor with 102. The fifteen departments varied somewhat in the rate of increase over time, since the federal personnel process is almost perfectly designed to move employees ever upward until they hit a ceiling that can be broken only when layers are added. Bound by the same system, all departments widen over time, but some have the funding and mission to widen more than others.
  5. The number of layers fell during the Clinton administration because of Vice President Al Gore’s targeted cuts on high-level management layers, while the number of leaders fell during the budget battles during the Obama administration. The reductions were small and short-lived, however, partly because promotions have long been used to evade pay freezes.

Departments generally recover the layers and leaders they lose through radical reorganizations such as the creation of the Homeland Security department in 2003. Even though the Justice, Transportation, and Treasury departments all lost units as part of the 22-agency merger, their hierarchies quickly recovered the loss. Adding the Homeland Security Department to the combined total, the four departments had 602 leaders in 1998, dropped to 583 one year after losing the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (Justice), U.S. Customs Service (Treasury), Secret Service (Treasury), and Transportation Security Administration (Transportation), but moved up to 697 with Homeland Security fully operational in 2010, and hit 736 in 2016.

People on People

Trump seemed to recognize the potential costs of this thickening when he told Fox & Friends in early March 2017 that he did not want to fill many of the 600 high-level posts still open for occupancy:

"Well, a lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have. You know we have so many people in government, even me, I look at some of the jobs and it’s people over people over people. … There are hundreds and hundreds of jobs that are totally unnecessary jobs."

Trump may have been right to question the need for so many jobs but was wrong to conclude that all the positions were unnecessary or could be eliminated at will. Some of them were created by statute; others were established through the federal government’s highly formalized classification system, and still others came about by department memoranda.

Most important, those positions were hardwired into a bureaucratic process that links the top of the federal government to the bottom. With all fifteen cabinet secretaries confirmed by May 1, the Trump administration was not so much headless as neckless.

At that point, the Trump administration was far behind other administrations in nominating its most senior officers but was filling up faster at the subcabinet level than most observers believed possible. Most of the new cabinet secretaries had already appointed their chiefs of staff, while the White House had appointed coterie overseers for the cabinet secretaries and their chiefs of staff. This process of title assignment was well underway when ProPublica published a list of the first 400 White House appointees.

In addition, many overseers selected by the White House do not have the requisite experience to monitor their assigned agencies or track their targets. A large number of the 400 appointees were former campaign aides and members of the administration’s transition “landing teams” clearly rewarded more for that service than for their knowledge.

The variation in status among these 400 political appointees is clear in the pay grades. The chiefs of staff and senior White House advisers on ProPublica’s list were appointed at the top of the salary schedule as political members of the Senior Executive Service, while the rest appear to be personal and confidential assistants at the middle of the schedule or even temporary appointees at the very bottom of their departments and agencies.

Based on the pay grades, most of the 400 will eventually receive one of the lesser titles listed in Table 1. This does not mean they will be irrelevant, but it does suggest that they will not be particularly effective overseers and “commissars,” as one Defense Department official described the White House loyalist sent to keep watch on the Pentagon.

Trump is not the first president to salt the cabinet ranks with loyalists. Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama did it, too, and they could always find an appointment for a friend. However, most presidents eventually decide that the best way to control the cabinet is to ignore it or appoint policy czars to eclipse it. Assuming Trump believes the cabinet is worth spying on, he may yet again be displaying his naïveté about governing.12 His loyalists are easy to identify and are not well linked to the White House itself. They report to lower-level White House staff working in the Old Executive Office Building, which Vice President Walter Mondale once likened to being in Baltimore.

Nevertheless, with so many Senate-confirmed appointees stuck in the nomination or confirmation process, and so much pressure to tamp down spending and regulation, the Trump administration’s watchful eye makes sense. It also makes the administration look faster than it is—he may be moving at a snail’s pace on his subcabinet, but he has been surprisingly quick in putting people on people on people to keep the cabinet in line.

Options for Delayering

Trump’s decision to simply ignore jobs that he perceives as unnecessary will reduce his control of government. Moreover, it will decimate the governing links between the top of his departments and bottom of his agencies. The less he knows about what is happening in government, the more likely he is to be at the helm of highly visible breakdowns such as the veterans waiting list scandal and continued problems at the Secret Service.

If Trump is truly serious about eliminating unnecessary leadership posts, he should evaluate every title open for occupancy. If he finds layers and leaders who obscure the chain of command and dilute accountability, he should eliminate the positions. Even if layers and leaders were critical to a federal mission, the position should be tested for potential reorganization when the current occupant leaves. No position should be exempt unless listed in statute, and even those posts could be challenged through the budget process.

Trump may believe that vacancies are just as effective as targeted downsizing, but Gore and his team of reinventors knew better. Targeting is the key to effectiveness. Most experts agree that the federal leadership hierarchy is now much too tall, wide, and isolating, but the flattening must be done with care, not through benign or deliberate neglect. At least for now, neglect has weakened the president’s ability to stop the recent cascade of federal breakdowns and undermined his ability to send directions to and collect information from the bottom of his organization. He would never leave key positions open for long in his own business and should not do so in government.