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.

April 14, 2021

Henry Burke

Blog Post

2020 Election/TransitionGovernment Capacity

Biden’s Build Back Better is Behind Schedule

On the campaign trail, Biden was reluctant to criticize any aspect of the “Obama-Biden” administration’s record. Since taking office, however, he has made perfectly clear that he is aware of, and has learned from, many of its mistakes. Having watched how an anemic stimulus package in 2009 delivered a slow, faltering recovery and political carnage, the Biden administration chose to go big with its economic response. This initial, consequential departure has earned Biden accolades and prompted a “growing narrative that he’s bolder and bigger-thinking than President Obama” (a narrative Biden reportedly loves). But while Biden may be surpassing Obama legislatively, he is lagging behind him when it comes to the pace of nominations, delaying policy implementation and preventing his administration from reaching its full potential.

April 14, 2021 | The American Prospect

Henry Burke Sion Bell

Op-Ed

Government Capacity

Biden’s Budget Should Build Back Even Better

President Biden’s inaugural annual budget request, which encompasses only discretionary spending (about a third of the federal budget), is a $1.52 trillion proposed investment in the federal government. The rest of the request, to be released later this spring, will include tax reforms and mandatory spending (which includes programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) and provide a fuller picture of the administration’s priorities.

April 02, 2021

Henry Burke

Blog Post

Government CapacityLabor

Biden's Budget Must Strengthen OSHA

Faced with a monumental workplace safety crisis in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has largely failed to protect workers. Decades of declining staffing levels left this critical agency unable to adapt to extraordinary conditions and support workers across the country when they most needed it. During his campaign, Joe Biden vowed to be the “strongest labor president you’ve ever had.” As he prepares to release his budget proposal for his first full financial year in office, the opportunity is fast approaching for Biden to put federal money where his mouth is. Biden must follow through on his pro-worker promises by expanding funding and employment levels for OSHA and OSHA state affiliates (among a slate of other sorely needed pro-labor policies) so that they have the capacity to safeguard workplace safety in times of crisis and otherwise.

March 31, 2021

Newsletter

2020 Election/TransitionGovernment CapacityIndependent Agencies

They’re Building Back Better; We Still Urge Faster!

Jockeying to shape the upcoming infrastructure package is well underway. Our attention, however, is on an important deadline this Sunday. April 4 is the last day for lawmakers to introduce Congressional Review Act resolutions to strike eligible Trump rules from the books. If they don’t meet this deadline, the Biden administration will have to undertake a lengthy administrative process to reverse those regulations. By forcing Biden to dedicate resources to these rollbacks and delaying the start of new rulemakings, failure to act now could set this administration back on everything from civil rights and financial regulation to housing and environmental regulation.

March 17, 2021

Newsletter

2020 Election/TransitionGovernment CapacityIndependent Agencies

The Financial Conflicts Lurking Around the Corner

Almost two months after he took office, Biden’s Cabinet is nearing completion. Nearly all of the six remaining spots seem set to be filled in relatively short order. Now, with the senior-most leadership in place, more permanent hiring for other political roles is likely to accelerate. And with that in mind progressives and good government groups are engaging in another push to ensure that public interest-minded officials populate all levels of political leadership. On Thursday, 46 groups sent a letter to Chief of Staff Ron Klain asking that new hires at the Justice Department not hail from BigLaw and that those with connections to firms who have already been hired recuse from policy and personnel decisions that could impact former clients. When asked whether the Biden administration would heed that call, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki was noncommittal. That’s disappointing — demanding recusals from BigTech and BigLaw tied hires should be a no-brainer (and, in fact, it’s already a step down from our preferred solution, which is not to appoint them at all) — but, if there’s one thing the administration should know by now, it’s that we’ll not be letting them off the hook when it comes to conflicts of interest.

February 12, 2021 | Talking Points Memo

Mariama Eversley

Op-Ed

Department of JusticeGovernment Capacity

Resignation of Trump-Appointed US Attorneys Is Just The Start Of DOJ’s De-Trumpification

In the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, the Department of Justice was created in part to deliver and oversee equal rights to formerly enslaved Black men and women. This corrective institution was a major step toward building a federal government that protects the civil rights of all its citizens. In the wrong hands, however, the department can be weaponized. Whether through inaction or outright hostility on issues ranging from white-collar crime to mass incarceration, the values animating the nation’s top law enforcement agency matter.

February 08, 2021

Press Release

Government Capacity

Impeachment Just the Start: Lawmakers Must Reverse Trump's Damage to the Civil Service

This week, the Senate begins its historic second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump centered on his attempt to overthrow the 2020 presidential election results by inciting an insurrection on the US Capitol that ultimately resulted in five deaths. Yet, rather than a singularly heinous act unmoored from the rest of his presidency, Trump’s attempted coup was the culmination of years of attacks on the federal government. Today, the Revolving Door Project released a memo, “Existential Threat to the Civil Service: Politicization Under Trump,” which charts Trump’s long war on the people and agencies that constitute the backbone of our country.

January 29, 2021

Miranda Litwak

Press Release

2020 Election/TransitionGovernment Capacity

Progressives Vehemently Object To Cass Sunstein’s Plans To Return To Government

The American Prospect reported today that Cass Sunstein, the former Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), is telling colleagues he is in line for a job in the Biden Administration. Environmental, labor, consumer advocacy, and progressive economic groups are united in their disdain toward Sunstein for his attacks on common-sense regulation throughout his time in the Obama Administration.

January 27, 2021

Press Release

Government Capacity

Revolving Door Project: Biden Must Use Available Tools to Grow Civil Service Quickly

Last week, Joe Biden assumed the presidency amid multiple, overlapping, short- and long-term crises. The list of priorities for the new administration is long and fights over the relative emphasis placed on each are surely incoming. To sidestep these ugly battles and ensure that his administration rises to meet each of these pressing crises, President Joe Biden must use all available powers to rebuild the federal government’s capacity to act in the public interest. The Revolving Door Project’s latest memo, “Rapid Reinforcements: A Guide to Federal Hiring Authorities,” enumerates the authorities that a Biden administration can and should use to scale up civil service capacity quickly.

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.