Artillery Row

The US has much to learn from the UK’s civil service

Despite Joe Biden’s best intentions, don’t expect a radical upheaval of America’s bureaucracy any time soon

In America, a new presidential administration means new faces. Some of them are immediately visible; others take a while to make themselves known. With a new press secretary, Jen Psaki, taking questions with a frequency and a reserved, non-adversarial professionalism not exhibited by her predecessors, the appearances are clear: it is all change, and back to normal.

Also visible are the confirmation hearings which wind their way through the senate – votes to determine whether Joe Biden’s choices for the cabinet will be allowed to take their positions. All parties have agreed to streamline this process, with the hope that it might take as little time as possible.

Some civil service jobs lay unfilled for years; some for the entire term of Trump’s presidency

Here appearances diverge from reality. It is certainly televisual to see Lloyd Austin – now secretary of state for defence – taking questions and subsequently be confirmed in office by a senate vote. It does the administration some good to have Antony Blinken – Biden’s secretary of state – expound on his vision for America before a committee of senators. But as C-SPAN viewers the world over can attest, this process is not just punishing to watch; even when accelerated, it is punishingly slow.

In a parliamentary system, cabinet ministers have either their own seats in the legislature or the security of serving at the pleasure of the executive. They can get to work straight away as soon as the requisite elections are won. A British custom for newly appointed ministers in the Commons to fight by-elections, something which not infrequently forced them into unlikely defeats, was eventually and sensibly stopped as a ridiculous waste of time.

But parliamentary systems have another advantage, too; something Americans may not necessarily appreciate. With the executive branch embedded in the legislature, and thus embroiled with the normal business of governing and its permanent cast of characters, there is little turnaround and turnover when another party takes over.

The wheels of government keep turning, whoever is in charge. Absent a few noteworthy appointments, the civil service continues to trundle along. This is not so in America.

One of the complaints most frequently – and justifiably – laid against Donald Trump was his laziness: particularly in making appointments to the sprawling executive branch bureaucracy, much of which is staffed by political choices who serve at the whim of the president. Jobs lay unfilled for years, some for the entire term of Trump’s presidency.

Appointees or career civil servants covered for their absent colleagues or held office in an acting capacity almost indefinitely. Friction was inevitable. Important things fell through the cracks. Work went undone.

Biden came to office publicly wishing to undo the wrongs of his predecessor. But this is still subject to institutional inertia of the kind that other democracies would not tolerate.

The second a president is replaced, so too are all of his appointed staff. At that moment, their jobs are not filled; they are empty. For all the pretences of this and every transition, there are fewer hands on the wheel.

Private conversations I have had with those close to specific areas of international policy suggest that no official is set to be appointed in their area of expertise for up to a year. This is not for lack of trying on the part of the new administration. To wait a year for a point of contact must be more than a little frustrating. But to know that the job is going undone all that time is maddening.

For all the Biden administration’s show of being on top of appointments, the sheer unwieldiness of the federal government means that it may well take far too long to appoint replacements to certain vital diplomacy and policy posts in American.

This churn doesn’t just throw good people out; it also means needless discontinuity in policy

This does not only leave jobs unfilled. The hardness and certainty of this churn means that good, decent professionals like Joel Rayburn (formerly US Special Envoy for Syria) were automatically out of a job the moment Donald Trump was. Rayburn spent 20 January telling his Arab friends, in their language, that democracy prevailed in America, and hoped that Syrians would live to see democracy take root in their own lands. (He will now work for a senator.)

But this churn doesn’t just throw good people out; it also means needless discontinuity in policy. Matt Pottinger, the architect of much that is commendable about Trump’s haphazard China policy, is also out of a job (he simply could not be retained because of his association with the previous reviled administration) despite the fact that much of Pottinger’s policy has become standard in Washington, embraced by both congressional parties. It is a shame and a waste that its architect could not be retained to continue it.

Despite the Biden administration’s pretence that it is moving quickly, it is not. Its pace is largely set by the glacial speed adopted by administrations past and the dictates of such a large, politicised executive branch. The flaws of this system may be difficult to avert, but it is not impossible. If Biden wished to put his desire for unity and bipartisanship into action, all the while moving as quickly as he says he wishes to do, he ought to consider retaining at least some of the previous president’s best people. Otherwise, for up to a year, the cabinet and the press secretary will have no one behind their new, fresh faces.

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