Could Trump make the bureaucracy great again?

Getting the bureaucrats to follow his lead would be one of Trump’s biggest challenges if elected.

The Transportation Security Administration could be the poster child of a failed bureaucracy, where the security screeners are largely incapable of doing their job at the nation’s airports.  The Veterans Administration is another example where efforts to reform the system have largely failed.  If Donald Trump wants to succeed as president, he has to threaten, cajole, and berate the bureaucracy to get his agenda implemented.  He also has to recruit talented managers.

Prior to the passage of the Pendleton Act of 1883, which established the civil service system, presidents appointed the federal bureaucracy according to the spoils system.  A change in administration would often lead to a wholesale change in the bureaucracy.  With the protections of civil service, bureaucrats were supposed to be hired and retained solely on the basis of merit.  Although it was disruptive and often corrupt, the spoils system had at least some level of accountability: you could blame the president if something did not get done.

Today, the pendulum has swung so far in favor of the bureaucrats that a president has few tools to hold them accountable.  True, he makes a large number of political appointees from the Cabinet level to agency regional directors, but below the top level, bureaucrats largely are insulated from presidential directives.  There are layers of laws and regulations along with union agreements that thwart efforts to hold anyone accountable.  Unlike on The Apprentice, it is almost impossible to fire anyone.

Hiring talented managers is one of Trump’s strengths, and he will have to attract and convince competent people to take on the task.  He needs to avoid hiring the political class, but instead reach out to the private sector to fill the numerous political jobs over which he has appointment authority.

Trump will also have to make his case with the American people, as he does now, to get them onboard so there is a popular will to get things done.  Franklin Roosevelt used the fireside chat effectively to calm the nation’s fears during depression and war, and Reagan made compelling speeches to the American people.  But Trump has his own unique ability to move public opinion by his skill in the art of the interview.  His voracious appetite to talk to any and all television and radio interviewers has proven effective along with his quotable tweets.

Finally, he needs to take on the establishment bureaucrats.  With the people behind him, he will have more latitude to push his agenda.  As he does with the public, he will have to communicate effectively with the bureaucrats as well as threaten where needed.  The Congress will also have to give him some tools as well such as the power of the purse over programs that are not performing.

Trump knows how to run a large business, but managing the federal government will be a monumental task.  Part of his legacy may depend on how well a Trump government functions.