Government Capacity

At the core of the Revolving Door Project’s work is a deeply held belief that government should work to advance the public interest, not the goals of a wealthy and well-connected few. For too long, this has been far from the reality. By quietly capturing key positions throughout the executive branch, corporate America has reshaped the rules that govern our economy. RDP regularly calls attention to these oft-overlooked corporate allies to increase the political costs of politicians’ consequential personnel concessions. At the same time, we are leading the way in envisioning an alternative model — one in which political appointments go to a more representative, public-interest minded class of leaders — and charting how we get there. 

As important as this work is, however, it alone will not be sufficient to remake government for the people. Even the most committed, effective leaders can do very little to advance the public interest if the institutions they lead are broken. And our governing infrastructure is crumbling. After years of attacks from both sides of the aisle, the federal government is able to do less overall and to do what it still does less effectively. This is not, as some would have you believe, an inherent failure endemic to “Big Government” but the opposite — ineffectiveness is the direct result of disinvestment. 

Civil service capacity*, in particular, has suffered. The corps of people who make the government run each day is shrinking when compared to the country’s population. It is also aging as it struggles to attract new talent, especially under austerity regimes such as the Obama-Boehner “sequester deal” in which new hiring was often off the table. The federal government today employs about as many workers as it did in 1960, which some conservatives see as a sign of their failure not to gut it more. Meanwhile, civil servants are regularly denigrated as lazy, ineffective, and greedy. And, of course, these problems only grew more acute throughout Donald Trump’s destructive four years in office. 

If we want the government to work for the people again, we can no longer neglect the question of who is doing that work. The Revolving Door Project is working to draw attention to this overlooked aspect of governance and to ensure that our leaders have the political will to take it on. That work can be divided into two overarching tranches: demanding accountability for Trump’s particularly egregious attacks on the civil service and proposing a more expansive vision for full-time federal personnel policy going forward. 

Coming to Terms with Trump’s Legacy

Throughout his time in office, Trump made no secret of his contempt for the civil service. In ways both big and small, Trump and his cronies made it more difficult for members of the federal workforce to do their jobs and in the process rendered us all much less safe. Career employees who contradicted him were at best ignored and at worst suffered severe retaliation. Entire offices that were seen to pose a threat were moved across the country. Meanwhile new hiring was frozen and budgets slashed, leaving those who remained with the trying task of doing more with less. In the administration’s closing days it went even further, lobbing a bomb at the civil service system in the form of Trump’s schedule F executive order. 

More disturbing still is the fact that these attacks undertaken in the public eye likely only represent the tip of the iceberg. This administration could easily have been accomplishing much more behind closed doors. This includes politicizing career hiring processes (as occurred during the George W. Bush administration), expanding the use of government contracting, reorganizing offices to reduce career officials power, and more. Each of these moves will cause problems over the long-term if not uncovered and reversed. A first step, therefore, in rebuilding the civil service and government capacity will be to clearly understand what the Trump administration accomplished. 

Envisioning Something New

In addition to turning our gaze backwards to the last four years, Revolving Door Project is working to chart a path forwards. Specific proposals to rebuild the civil service and increase the government’s capacity to act in the public interest will vary, but we believe that all should adhere to the following basic principles:

  • We can no longer tolerate personnel shortfalls. Political leaders must commit to investing what it takes to ensure that the civil service has the capacity it needs – in terms of the raw number of people, technical resources, and expertise – to carry out its functions. That will include a short term surge to use existing authorities to replenish agencies devastated by Trump as well as serious medium and long term initiatives.
  • We must elevate and valorize civil servants’ expertise. Trump’s denigration of civil service expertise has been extraordinary, but he is far from the first president to sideline career experts. The balance of power between political appointees and civil servants has shifted steadily in the former’s favor under both Democratic and Republican presidents. That means higher turnover and less experience in key decision-making roles. It is time to start shifting the balance back by making more space for civil servants to weigh in at the highest levels. Hero of the moment, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is far from the only public servant with the expertise and commitment to meaningfully advance the public interest in times of peace and of crisis alike. The next administration should look to unleash this vast store of knowledge and public-minded energy.
  • Civil service jobs should be good jobs. To attract new civil service entrants, policymakers must improve the quality of civil service jobs. Many civil servants operate in a hostile environment, subject to political attacks (from both outside the walls of government and inside them) which often manifests in chronic underfunding, and thus, overwork. Our political leaders must reject this scapegoating wholesale.

    In addition to funding under-resourced departments, they should commit to creating more pathways for hiring (especially for people from marginalized communities who are severely underrepresented in the civil service’s upper ranks) and to providing career officials with more meaningful control over executive-branch policymaking. That must involve recognizing unions representing civil service workers as legitimate stakeholders with whom leaders should negotiate in good faith. It should also include trimming down the growth in layers of political appointees (many of whom lack subject matter expertise) who sit between career experts and decision-making power. While political appointees are an important and necessary part of executive branch governance, excessive politicization of the type we see today is detrimental.
  • After years of government outsourcing, we need a new wave of insourcing. In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration “reinvented” government, putting many of its core functions into the hands of contractors. These policies particularly devastated workers of color who are disproportionately represented in the public workforce and for whom public employment has long represented an especially promising pathway to the middle class. Over two decades later, it is clear that that strategy has failed. Government contractors are neither cheaper nor, seemingly, more effective.

    As for the workers, those employed by contractors tend to have lower wages and worse benefits than their public sector counterparts (the costliness of this workforce stems from the spoils going to firms’ senior management, shareholders, and lobbying/government relations teams). And, with the number of contract workers ballooning, it is becoming ever more difficult for Congress to properly oversee this “shadow” workforce. It’s past time that the federal government take back control of more of the work of government, for the sake of those who are actually doing the jobs and in the spirit of greater democratic control. 

Those who wish to see the federal government work for the public interest cannot afford to ignore the plight of those who will be tasked with reaching these goals. By improving the quality of civil service jobs, policies in line with these principles will encourage new people to join the federal workforce and make it so that those who do join want to stay. That will translate, in turn, to greater expertise in policy decision-making, better continuity of operations during transitions, and a greater capacity to respond to the country’s long- and short-term challenges. In short, such policies will help to grant our federal government the capacity to effectuate structural changes.

* We define civil service personnel broadly to include both members of the civil service and career officials in “excepted” roles like those at the Department of Justice or the Treasury Department.

Below you will find some of the project’s writing and research on government capacity. For a selection of quotes and interviews on the topic, please visit this page.

January 20, 2022

Eleanor Eagan

Blog Post

Government Capacity

Revolving Door Project Examines Agency Capacity

The Revolving Door Project is fighting for an executive branch whose every corner is working tirelessly to advance the broad public interest and not to further entrench corporate power. That means scrutinizing the federal government’s highest ranks and applying pressure to keep them free of undue corporate influence. It also means interrogating whether the institutions those political leaders steer have the provisions they need to fulfill their missions. 

January 19, 2022

Press Release

ClimateGovernment Capacity

New Report Warns Agency Capture Threatens OCC Climate Response

Today the Revolving Door Project released a report on the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s OCC) capacity to implement and enforce climate regulation. This is the third installment of the project’s ongoing Climate Finance Capacity project \identifying the tools each component of the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) has to address the climate crisis through regulatory reform and the capacity-related obstacles that could stand in the way. Prior installments have looked at the Commodities Future Trading Commission (CFTC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).Through this project, we aim to highlight the responsibility each of these agencies have in regulating our financial system towards a more sustainable future, and the reforms necessary to achieve this vision as examined through the lens of each agency’s unique resourcing.

January 11, 2022

Fatou Ndiaye

Blog Post

ClimateFinancial RegulationGovernment CapacityIndependent Agencies

Climate Finance Capacity Project: Securities and Exchange Commission

Climate change poses a serious threat to everything the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is meant to protect and oversee. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CTFC)’s “Managing Climate Risk in the U.S. The Financial System ”report makes this abundantly clear. The report concludes that climate change may “exacerbate existing, non-climate related vulnerabilities in the financial system, with potentially serious consequences for market stability”. Furthermore, the physical and transitional risks of climate change will likely lead to systemic and sub-systemic financial shocks. These shocks would cause “unprecedented disruption in the proper functioning of financial markets and institutions” and further marginalize communities underserved by the financial system. To fulfill its mandate, of maintaining fair, orderly, and efficient markets, protecting investors, and facilitating capital formation, the SEC must proactively ensure there is enough personnel to monitor and enforce regulations that will keep markets stable and adaptable. 

January 11, 2022

Press Release

ClimateGovernment CapacityIndependent Agencies

New Report Warns That Insufficient Capacity at The SEC Might Limit its Role In the Fight Against Climate Change

Today, the Revolving Door Project released its SEC Climate Capacity Report examining the detrimental impact of capacity shortfalls on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)’s climate work. This report is the second installment of its Climate Finance Capacity Project. The Climate Finance Capacity Project explores the power and responsibility that each of the Financial Stability Oversight Council’s member agencies has to address the climate crisis and consider how resource limitations threaten to limit their impact. 

January 04, 2022

Hannah Story Brown

Blog Post

Executive BranchGovernment CapacityIndependent AgenciesTrade Policy

Amidst a Record Supply Chain Crisis, What is the Federal Maritime Commission’s Capacity?

One tiny federal agency with 116 full-time employees and a $28.9 million dollar budget is in charge of regulating the global marine economy, which contributes $397 billion to the US GDP annually and accounts for 80 percent of goods shipped worldwide. That’s not just an apples and oranges discrepancy—that’s like an apple versus Apple. The budget for the military’s marching bands is fifteen times greater than the Federal Maritime Commission’s budget; the Marines alone have five times more musicians than the Commission has staff.

December 03, 2021

Toni Aguilar Rosenthal

Blog Post

Ethics in GovernmentGovernment CapacityRevolving Door

Active Revolving Door Between Government and Contracting Industry Could Threaten Reform

Officially speaking, the federal government employs just shy of 3.6 million people (2.2 in the civilian workforce and 1.4 in the military). In reality, however, the number of people whose paychecks originate with the federal government (through grants or service contracts) is much larger — around 12 million according to recent estimates. This workforce, and the contracts that sustain it, rarely get much attention in public discourse. Yet, the federal government’s power to set standards and direct funds through contracting is not an insignificant one. President Biden has begun to tap into those powers with directives to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour for federal contractors and institute a vaccine mandate for those same workers. These are strong first steps but they only scratch the surface of what is possible and what is needed to address the many problems that plague federal contracting. Fully harnessing that power, however, will likely require confronting a deep-seated problem: an active revolving door between the offices charged with granting and monitoring federal contracts and the companies that receive them. 

December 02, 2021

Toni Aguilar Rosenthal

Blog Post

ClimateFinancial RegulationGovernment CapacityIndependent Agencies

Climate Finance Capacity Project: Commodity Futures Trading Commission

The Biden Administration was elected to office with an urgent mandate to change our current trajectory towards catastrophic climate change. Climate-focused financial regulation, or the regulation of markets to accurately account for climate risk and the social and material costs of climate-damaging activities, must be a part of this coordinated federal response in order to meaningfully address climate concerns at the governmental level. An agency that is particularly key to this goal is the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). The CFTC is one of the smallest federal financial regulatory bodies and yet it is responsible for regulating one of the country’s largest markets, derivatives. While it was originally founded to regulate futures trading in commodities, the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010 expanded the CFTC’s mandate to include swaps markets and broadened the agency’s role in regulating other derivatives, in part due to their extreme volatility and outsized role in the 2008 financial crisis. 

November 05, 2021 | The American Prospect

Eleanor Eagan Fatou Ndiaye

Op-Ed

ClimateGovernment Capacity

A Missing Link in the Fight Against the Climate Crisis

With his legislative climate agenda hanging in the balance, President Biden turned to executive action this week in his attempt to “assert American leadership” at COP26 in Glasgow. On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced sweeping new rules to curb methane emissions. Those standards, which the agency estimates would eliminate a greater volume of emissions between 2023 and 2035 than those emitted from all U.S. passenger cars and commercial planes in 2019, were rightly applauded. For now, however, these are just estimates. Ensuring that they turn into real-life emissions reductions that meet or exceed expectations will require that agencies have the capacity to promptly write strong new rules and, then, enforce them.

November 02, 2021

Eleanor Eagan Fatou Ndiaye

Report

ClimateGovernment Capacity

Climate Capacity Crisis: Attrition at Climate Agencies and Immediate Steps to Address It

It has been over nine months since President Donald Trump left office, but on climate policy the federal government continues to show the scars from his disastrous presidency. At a moment when we do not have even a second to waste to avoid catastrophic climate change, agencies are struggling to build back better after attacks on scientific integrity and agency budgets left them without sufficient staff capacity and expertise. While the Biden administration has consistently affirmed its support for the federal workforce through rhetoric and action, New York Times reporting from this summer makes clear that the rebuilding is still not happening fast enough. 

October 18, 2021 | The Hill

Eleanor Eagan Jeff Hauser

FOIA Request

Executive BranchGovernment Capacity

The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it

Biden’s agenda are falling victim to arcane Senate rules, and not just the filibuster. Dysfunction is slowing the Senate confirmation process to a crawl too, producing a backlog hundreds of nominees deep. For as long as these delays keep permanent officials out of their intended roles, they will limit the scope and ambition of the Biden administration’s agenda. Senate Democrats must act to change them. 

August 18, 2021

Eleanor Eagan

Newsletter

ClimateDepartment of JusticeGovernment CapacityIndependent AgenciesUSPS

Who’s Afraid of Brett Kavanaugh’s Scorn?

The U.S. Court of Appeals is set to rule on the Biden Administration’s eviction moratorium sometime this week. No matter how it decides, however, it is already clear that those who argued against a new moratorium were wrong. A Trump judge has acknowledged that she must, begrudgingly, sustain it for now. By fighting, rather than preemptively surrendering, the administration has ensured that millions of Americans can stay in their homes for weeks longer. That is undoubtedly worth any embarrassment that government lawyers may feel from potentially eventually losing a case.