Does the US have politically neutral civil servants?

In the westminister parliamentary system each government minister will also have a permanent secretary who is the non-political head of the ministry (eg finance, defense, foreign office etc). Generally civil servants in the UK / Australia are expected to stay out of politics and are instead experts in their field, and they provide stability and continuity when governments transition.

I get the impression that the US does not have politically neutral civil servants and they instead seem to get appointed by governments of the same party. Am I wrong? If they are all political appointees how to they handle transitions? Must be messy.

There are two types of civil servants, political appointees and career. The political appointments are the heads of agencies and their immediate underlings. It is their job to set policy under the direction of the presidency. It is the career civil servants whose job it is to implement the policies. Political appointees are nominated by the president and approved by congress. If a career civil servant rises high enough they will need to be approved by congress as well.
Usually every four years a new set of political appointees are nominated. During the transition either the previous appointee stays on or a career person is named acting.
The career civil servants do most of the actual work and the political appointees usually just have a couple of pet projects they try to accomplish while in office.

Political appointees tend to rotate through rather frequently. Every department has a permanent staff made up of civil servants who have some protection from the political process.

It’s not exactly like the British system but it’s somewhat similar.

Government service (“GS”) employees cannot be fired except for cause. Once you reach the senior executive service (SES) level, you are more at the whim of political officials.

The Hatch Act bars political people from forcing government employees to participate in political activities.

Can the incoming government sack career civil servants and is that common? I have the impression that it’s almost impossible for a government to sack the high ranking civil servants in the British system, but maybe thats just from watching too much Yes, Minister.

No and no.

At the top of each department is a layer of political appointees—that includes pretty much anyone with “secretary” in their titles—that are presumed “sacked” when a new administration comes in, although the new administration often chooses to keep a few of them.

Career civil servants can’t be sacked in that way. However, a career civil servant who accepts an appointment to a political appointment level office is no longer protected by civil service rules. If you want to stay a career civil servant, you have to avoid promotion to the highest levels.

Due to well established law, it’s difficult to ‘sack’ anyone in the UK. There has to be a specific reason and due process. Of course a ‘K’ and an early pension will often move a recalcitrant permanent secretary out of the way.

If a senior Civil Servant, and their political boss, were unable to work together, then the CS would be moved sideways, retired, or promoted. A mid level CS will always be moved to a new department on promotion. My step mother worked in a department in Cambridge that managed government buildings etc. She was promoted, three years before she retired, to a post in London, where she worked on procurement policy and contracts.

You may be an expert on transport or education, but if you want to move up, you will have to gain a new expertise.

The idea of bureaucratic intransigence exists in the U.S. government as well, but outright blocking of political decisions by the permanent civil service is not something you hear about much.

In the US, Cabinet secretaries are all appointees of the executive. As such, the secretary has wide power, and appoints his own staff, which always reflects the executive party. In the British Parliamentary system, a Cabinet minister must be elected as a member for a constituency, nearly always for the party in power, but does not necessarily have knowledge or expertise of the ministry’s responsibility, and appoints a deputy minister to handle the function held by an American cabinet secretary. These, very often but not necessarily, remain in place regardless of which party forms the government.

Generally, in the British system, nearly all government functionaries remain in place from government to government, knowledgeable about the workings of the office, but subject to the guidance of the current administration, following changeable rules, regs and policies. (Somewhat oversimplified explanation)

A critical difference between the Westminster system and the US is that the US has no direct equivalent of a minister. In the US the executive and the legislature are distinct. Under the Westminster system the two overlap. In the US system the executive includes the president and the appointed heads and departments. Secretary of State(US) = Foreign Secretary(UK) = Foreign Minister(Oz) and so on. US officers of the executive are not elected members of the legislature, and (AFAIK) may not be. But they may require ratification of the appointment. Under the Westminster system the equivalent roles are required to be elected members of the house, or Lords. In Oz the constitution requires that they be elected members. The lack of a president under the Westminster system is key here.

This is probably some source of the confusion of roles. In the UK/Oz etc a secretary of a department is usually the career public servant. They are difficult to impossible to remove. (Abolishing the position is one way.) Ministers in charge of departments are usually called ministers, but may have other titles (Chancellor of the Exchequer, or confusingly sometimes secretary - Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary.) They are appointed on the recommendation of the prime minister, and whilst they serve at the pleasure of the monarch or its representative, are essentially sackable by the PM at whim.

There are/have been variations on the political/Civil Service categories.

A large number of low level White House positions are not Civil Service and can be replaced by the PotUS. Which lead to the baffling Travelgate “scandal”. Some people in the Clinton WH travel office were replaced. Since they weren’t Civil Service, no problem, right? Somehow it became a “-gate” complete with a Special Prosecutor, allegations of cover-ups (of what?), contradictory testimony (welcome to reality), etc.

The Dept. of Homeland Security had some exemptions to normal Civil Service rules created when it started up, but most of those have since been eliminated. But for a while there, in certain areas, a lot of people could have been replaced for political reasons.

It might just be a difference in terminology. In a U.S. government department, a secretary or deputy secretary or anyone with “secretary” in their titles was appointed by the president and will expect to have to leave by the election. Indeed, even if the the president who appointed them is re-elected, they might expect to reign voluntarily as a matter of course for the second term. In fact, on average they stay only about a year and a half.

How do they ever learn anything about the department they are secretary of with such a short tenure ? Seems like a very inefficient system to me.

I suspect it’s more about building up an impressive resume than actually doing the job. I remember the job the political appointees did in FEMA during Hurricane Katrina. Some politicals can drive the experienced senior GS types into transferring to other departments.

But that’s not much different from the Westminster system, where a minister can be shuffled out by the PM after a short tenure. Cabinet ministers aren’t supposed to have subject-matter expertise in their ministries; that’s what the professional civil servants are for.

Cabinet ministers are to bring judgment, a clear knowledge of their policy mandate from the PM, and the political skills to know what can be done to advance those policy goals.

The number of political appointees in the U.S. government is pretty small compared to the total number of government workers. It’s apparently about 8,000 compared to about 2.79 million civilian employees and about 1.3 million members of the military (and 811,000 reserve members, if they count). Most Senior Executive Service members, although they’re part of the 8,000, are only political appointees in a vague sense. They are people who worked their way up in their agencies. They don’t get fired and hired with each administration in general. They’re about half of the appointees:

All U.S. government workers are required to follow strict rules about what political activities they can engage in, so they’re not allowed to do certain activities that non-government employees can do:


This shows average Cabinet Secretary tenures more than twice that, for each of the last five Presidents.

Right, that part is the same in the Parliamentary Ministers and in the US Secretaries.

**coremelt: ** The full-rank Secretaries are normally expected to last for a full Presidential term, though there may be changes along the way. In the current administration the most common pattern has been one holder of the Cabinet post per 4-year term but there have been offices that have had 4 holders, one that has had the one since 2009, several who only switched well into the second term. The immediate prior administration was similar overall. Meanwhile, the Undersecretaries, Deputy Secretaries/Directors and Assistant Secretaries may be stable posts as the Secretary/Director’s inner team for an entire term, BUT they also include people who were brought in to oversee a particular initiative for the few months it lasted, and who then moved on. Those lower the average at the second and third tiers.

A career civil official could be appointed to a position-of-trust under the Secretary/Director, yet, depending on the particular personnel rules that apply to the posts, not have to resign their career billet and retain the right to reinstatement once that appointment is done with; this could also be done laterally between departments or agencies. As mentioned earlier, though, this is not normally done for the top tier Secretary/Director posts – or at least not until the person is far advanced enough in their career that the appointment can be a capstone from which they could be expected to then move on to retirement, the private sector, or active politics, rather than return to underling status.

In the U.S. there is a process informally called “burrowing in,” in which appointed posts are converted to career posts as a President is about to leave office. These would be lower level appointees, 3-4 layers down from the Secretary level. The idea is to leave behind embedded, ideologically motivated employees to continue the policies of the outgoing president, or mitigate the policies of the incoming one. I don’t think it’s especially common though, not least because these people can all make much more money in the private sector.

As for expertise, part of the process of “confirmation hearings” is theoretically to ascertain whether the appointee is competent to do the job; and most do bring relevant expertise. A Defense Secretary might be someone with long experience with armed service matters in Congress; the Agriculture Secretary is often a former governor of a farm state. Some upper-level appointees are people who have served in government in various lower-level capacities as political appointees and worked their way up. And some, even at high levels, are members of the out party who have relevant experience and are not known as partisan warriors.

There are some truly unqualified people who get their jobs–the best-known recent example was Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration during Hurricane Katrina, whose CV included a prior stint at the International Arabian Horse Association. I’m not picking on the W. Bush administration by the way, most of its appointees were serious, experienced people, whatever you think of their policies and job execution. You’ll find duds in any administration, especially among the ambassadors.