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. If we want the government to work for the people again, we can no longer neglect the question of who is doing that work.

In the coming months, the Revolving Door Project will be working to draw attention to this overlooked aspect of governance and to ensure that our leaders have the political will to take it on. Specific proposals will vary, but we believe that all should adhere to the following basic principles:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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..
  1. 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. If the overall trends in the private sector are any indicator, there is also reason to believe the contract work force is less integrated than the federal one (unfortunately demographic data for the federal contract workforce is not publicly available; the next president ought to compel such demographic data to be collected for public distribution).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.

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 21, 2021

Ella Fanger Sion Bell

Blog Post

2020 Election/TransitionEthics in GovernmentGovernment Capacity

To Build Back Better, Biden Must Fix Government

Yesterday, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. President Biden has promised to build back a better America, but he faces a steep climb to reach this lofty goal. The nation is still reeling from an ongoing pandemic and recession, and the government has had to cope with massive shocks to the civil service, morale, and its basic functions during the Trump administration. To make good on his promise, Biden will need to undo the damage from Trump and decades of right-wing actions to undermine governance.

January 19, 2021 | Slate

Eleanor Eagan

Op-Ed

Congressional OversightGovernment Capacity

Trump Has Quietly Hollowed Out the Government

Over four years, federal workers were ignored, subjected to retaliation, and fired for articulating politically inconvenient truths or standing in the way of President Donald Trump’s attacks against the public. By all accounts, that is set to change under President-elect Joe Biden. But while new attacks may not be forthcoming, the fissures from old ones will remain, threatening the federal government’s structural integrity unless the next administration and Congress take action. For all that we know about Trump’s assaults on the federal workforce, there is likely more that remains hidden. Up to this point, Democratic leadership has failed to make combating or uncovering these incursions a priority. For the sake of the Biden administration’s success, that will need to change.

January 12, 2021

Zena Wolf

Blog Post

2020 Election/TransitionForeign PolicyGovernment Capacity

With Bill Burns At CIA, A Hopeful Move Toward Civil Service Revitalization

At the Revolving Door Project, we have frequently emphasized the importance of strengthening the civil service to ensure government works for public service and doesn’t cater to the interest of powerful people and corporations. We warned about how too much reliance on political appointments in the executive branch reduces accountability, citing academic research that political appointees perform worse than career managers. Especially in the Trump era, we have seen numerous examples of political appointees using the government for personal gain. Biden’s selection of William Burns, a career diplomat, as his CIA director should therefore be widely praised by progressives as a step towards restoring the civil service and depoliticizing the American intelligence community.

January 12, 2021

Mariama Eversley

Blog Post

Government Capacity

Schedule F Still Poses a Grave Threat to the Civil Service

From the moment President Trump took office, he has been on a warpath with the civil service. He and his associates have waged an open war (and likely one behind closed doors as well) to seize control over federal employees just out of reach of easy firing. In October, as his presidency appeared rapidly to be approaching its end, he lobbed a bomb at the civil service system.

December 21, 2020

Press Release

Government Capacity

Revolving Door Project Statement on Congressional Leaders' Failure to Protect the Civil Service

On Sunday Congress announced that it had reached a deal on a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill that will keep the federal government funded through September. The package includes $1.375 billion for the border wall — sticking the incoming administration with a costly, unpopular, and inhumane project — and does nothing to halt President Trump’s attack on the civil service through the creation and implementation of the new “Schedule F” civil service classification.

November 20, 2020 | The American Prospect

Eleanor Eagan Mariama Eversley

Op-Ed

2020 Election/TransitionGovernment CapacityIndependent Agencies

Joe Biden Must Not Look for Unity in Mitch McConnell’s Obstruction

Last week, Mitch McConnell chose to fan the flames of baseless electoral conspiracy rather than acknowledge Joe Biden’s indisputable victory. Meanwhile, prominent Democrats took to the airwaves to insist that working with McConnell would not be nearly as hard as people claimed. This is dangerous, wishful thinking.

November 18, 2020 | The Hill

Yevgeny Shrago

Op-Ed

2020 Election/TransitionGovernment Capacity

GSA head's transition refusal a predictable consequence of too many political appointees

General Services Administration (GSA) Administrator Emily Murphy is often introduced as “obscure” or “little known.” Her new-found notoriety stems from her refusal to declare Joe Biden as the president-elect. This inaction blocks his team from meeting with senior agency personnel, even as Murphy herself looks for her next job. Murphy has drawn bipartisan condemnation for playing along with Trump’s assault on democracy. The condemnation should extend to the system that prioritizes rewarding political operatives like Murphy over any principles of merit, efficiency or meaningful accountability.

November 02, 2020 | Talking Points Memo

Eleanor Eagan Yevgeny Shrago

Op-Ed

Congressional OversightGovernment Capacity

A Lame Duck Trump Admin Will Do All It Can To Pilfer Before Jan. Dems Must Be Ruthless In Thwarting It.

The way tomorrow’s election will go remains highly uncertain. If Trump loses, however, there is no doubt that his administration will set about destroying and pilfering all that it can. Already, as they stare down the barrel of electoral defeat, Trump and his entourage are previewing their lame-duck plan to shovel every federal dollar they can to family and friends.

October 29, 2020 | The American Prospect

Eleanor Eagan

Op-Ed

2020 Election/TransitionGovernment Capacity

Note to Biden: A President Can Do a Lot Even Without the Senate

For almost four years, the breathtaking cruelty, mismanagement, and corruption of the Trump administration have kept the pundits yapping, the printing presses running, angry congressional letters flying, and the Twittersphere ablaze. Depending on the results of next Tuesday’s election, however, Joe Biden may soon be in a position to actually do something about it all. As Biden and his advisers survey the rubble, it will be important that they not get distracted by the nonsense (“I will tweet less” is not a compelling administrative pillar), but rather home in on those features of the Trump administration that have made life worse for millions.

October 23, 2020 | Public Seminar

Mariama Eversley Yevgeny Shrago

Op-Ed

Congressional OversightGovernment Capacity

Donald Trump Politicized the Federal Bureaucracy: The Next President Needs to Reverse That

In an effort to mitigate the political damage from failing to contain the virus and manage its corollary crises, the White House recently mandated that the Department of Agriculture include a signed letter from Donald Trump inside food boxes, claiming credit for the federal program providing food to families in need. The move effectively politicized the taxpayer funded program as a tool of the president’s own self-promotion just a month before the election. Even worse, the department’s inclusion of the letter has jeopardized the program’s operation, as distribution sites fear they will be improperly engaging in political activity.

October 23, 2020 | Washington Monthly

Yevgeny Shrago

Op-Ed

Government Capacity

Uncle Sam’s HR Department Needs Help

Joe Biden promises a return to an honest, competent federal government. For that to happen, the government must be adequately staffed with experienced civil servants empowered to push forward his policy agenda, should he win. Without an experienced team, even the best appointees will struggle.

September 24, 2020 | The American Prospect

Yevgeny Shrago

Op-Ed

ClimateGovernment Capacity

Re-Fund the EPA

The wildfires and hurricanes plaguing the United States in the last month reflect the massive societal implications of climate change. Understanding the importance of this moment, Vice President Joe Biden has proposed a $2 trillion climate plan designed to transition the economy away from greenhouse gas emissions. The plan calls for an emission-free power sector by 2030, as well as an environmental justice component to address how climate policies have failed communities of color. Parts of Biden’s plan will require new legislation and others will deputize numerous federal agencies. But a major share of responsibility for success will fall on the Environmental Protection Agency.

September 01, 2020

FOIA RequestPress Release

Ethics in GovernmentGovernment Capacity

Revolving Door Project Seeks to Uncover Politicization of Career Hiring Under Trump

Today, the Revolving Door Project is introducing a new initiative to uncover and draw attention to the ways the Trump administration may be seeking to interfere with the federal government’s ability to effectively serve the public interest over the long-term. RDP has issued Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the resumes of new hires at 10 federal departments and agencies. We seek to determine if hiring for career positions has been subjected to political influence. It is our hope that, by identifying potential instances of politicization, we can build political support for efforts to reverse any damage.

August 10, 2020 | Talking Points Memo

Mariama Eversley

Op-Ed

Government Capacity

The Same Racist Rhetoric Used To Oppose D.C. Statehood Keeps The Federal Government Dysfunctional

Conservatives like Cotton have long villainized African-American pathways to the middle class that include government employment. In a conservative worldview that sees the U.S. government as by and for white people, Black employment in the public sector becomes a target for the GOP and federal jobs become fodder for racist “dog whistle” politics.