Political Appointees and Career Executives

  • Mokgata MatjieEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_1267-1



  • Political appointee: refers broadly to any employee who is appointed by the president.

  • Career executive: any person appointed to a high administrative and policy influencing position within the state/government public administration or civil service in the capacity to render management advice to political appointees.

  • Politicization: is a situation whereby political appointees’ control of the administrative sphere is growing and career executives (bureaucratic autonomy) are powerless or in retreat.


Political appointee exist across all nations with any type of governance system in the world. Their appointments is often seen rewards for the loyalty for the president after a successful campaign. However, scholars’ advice that is should not be seen as a reward but only be seen as a chance to serve the public interests or an assignment of public duty.

Political appointments exist to assert the president’s political agenda by relishing maximum control of the government. The president usually appoint those seemed loyal; hence, political appointments are often used imprecisely or interchangeably with various types of political rewards, including patronage, clientelism, nepotism, or cronyism (Piattoni 2001).

In democratic countries, presidents are democratically elected and as such, they are expected to carry out their campaign promises by directing the executive branch of government. Thus, appointments of political appointees in executive positions to lead various portfolios or departments are necessary and legitimate. Political appointees assure responsiveness to presidential policy priorities throughout the executive branch. In addition to democratic legitimacy, political appointees bring new energy and new ideas to the government from the private sector, universities, and state and local governments.

To promote and implement such policies, political appointees need assistance by qualified and experienced experts, the career executives. Career executives exist to serve any and every administration diligently and competently without regard to their own personal political beliefs. They are indispensable to the success of the political appointee(s) with whom he or she works. They serve as a link between these political appointees and the rest of the government workforce in a particular department or institution. However, one of their main challenges is presidential transitions, just like political appointees. Career executives’ position can be established only in the top managerial levels of government institutions or departments, and the role is characterized by broad responsibility for policy implementation and extensive participation in policy evolvement.

Political appointees perceive their roles as to strengthen political control over the administrative system in their favor and to reduce bureaucratic autonomy enjoyed and celebrated by career executives. Political appointees’ perceptions are deemed “politicization” and the result is the encroachment into career executives’ roles and autonomy.

Politicization is possible because the ministers have the power and control and enjoy the support of the president over what they perceive to be disloyal civil servants. Career executives who are not responsive to request of ministers are often threatened with dismissal as result civil servants abandon their impartiality under pressure from political agents (Hustedt and Salomonsen 2014).

Inevitably, role conflict exist between these two groups, as concluded by Kristinsson, (2016) that there is a growing political control of the administrative sphere and bureaucratic autonomy is in retreat. Downs’s well-known typology of bureaucratic roles distinguish between political appointees and career executives in terms of their motivations, thus attempting to limit encroachment and ultimately role conflict. This role conflict necessitates the need to examine the different roles of both groups and to clarify them. Political appointees and career executives need not be in conflict but should work together for the sake of public interests as they supplement each other.

Roles of Political Appointees and Career Executives in Public Administration

Political appointees serve a number of different roles and do not necessarily conform to a single type. Their roles may also vary considerably from one case to another and develop differently (Hustedt and Salomonsen 2014).

Their main roles are made by politician or president based on the discretion they have for politicizing appointments. However, the roles of career executives are usually included in the employment contract. The source of conflict between political appointees and career executives is the motivation and attitude for being in the role. Political appointees aim to do anything necessary to achieve or reach political agendas of the president, even if it means breaking rules at times, whereas career executives exist to uphold those rules and advise the politicians on the correct processes and procedures, what can be done and what cannot be done.

Downs’s well-known typology of bureaucratic roles distinguishes between climbers, conservers, advocates, zealots, and statesmen. These roles indicate the motivations of political appointees and career executives in government departments across the world. Scholars have documented that the two groups differ in important ways due to what they represent and what they bring to the department or institutions. The crucial point is that political appointees and career executives occupy unique roles that help explain their respective attitudes and behaviors.

Downs’s (1967) emphasis is on the behavioral rather than formal roles of political appointees and career executives. Both political appointees and career executives or bureaucrats are rational and self-interested. Basing his typology of officials on individual motivation, Downs posits five ideal types: climbers, conservers, advocates, zealots, and statesmen.
  1. 1.

    Climbers and conservers are wholly self-interested officials. Political appointees are the climbers because they are motivated by their own status, power, and income. The jobs are short term, as such, they seek to climb the ladder as quick as possible to ensure that by the time there is government transition, they are well placed.

  2. 2.

    Conservers seek only their own security and convenience. These are career executives whose convenience are the existing rules and regulations, which they strictly follow. Failure to follow rule might lead to dismissals, thus losing their security. Both groups are considered mixed-motive due to self-interests, but they have altruistic motives, which is to serve the public interests. Climbers attempt to serve based on the policies and campaign promises and conservers attempt to serve by following rules and processes.

  3. 3.

    A wide range of incentives motivates advocates, but primarily they promote the good of the government department or institution they work for (Downs 1967). These are the career executives, who enjoy high salaries and benefits for being a top official, but still their main prerogative is the government department or institution they work for, and it will be difficult for them to compromise their values to satisfy politicians.

  4. 4.

    Zealots are loyal to a particular set of policies, which Downs calls “sacred policies.” These are the political appointees because they can at all costs harm the government department or institution they lead in order to support such policies. They are susceptible to corruption, bribery, nepotism, intimidation, and all sorts of ammunitions they can get to support their policies.

  5. 5.

    Finally, statesmen are motivated by the good of society or “public interests” as a whole and, thus, may support measures that would harm their own organizations and careers so long as these measures are believed to be good for society. Both groups are likely to represent the public interest, although political appointees focus on supporting the president’s agenda and career official’s focus on the department or institution’s agenda (Heclo 1977; Maranto 1993).


The existence of the difference in behavioral roles and attitudes usually stems from various issues as discussed below.

Differences Between Political Appointees and Career Executives

These two groups have different motivations and objectives even though they all want to serve the public interests. Their methods of serving the public interests are different. For example, the political appointees may bypass rules and regulations to serve the public through the president, whereas career executive’s aims to always follow the rules and regulations to protect and serve the interest of the public.

Broad literature suggests that political appointees and career executives differs in terms of the following (Table 1):
Table 1

Differences between Political Appointees and Career Executives (Based on Downs, 1967, Heclo, 1977, and Maranto, 1993)


Political appointees

Career executives

Political ideology

• Political appointees tend to hold more extreme political ideals.

• Political appointees are overwhelmingly from the same political party and typically have little experience working across party lines

• Political appointees are often referred to as zealots or ideologues

• Career executives tend to be centrist

• Career executives may be required to serve under political appointees of different political parties

• Career executives are relatively pragmatic

Time horizon

• Political appointees tend to be driven by short-term political or career-advancement considerations

• Political appointees usually have some link to the winning political campaign

• Political appointees serve for relatively short periods and often set their sights on further advancement, either to higher level political positions or to the private sector

• Career executives tend to take a long-term approach to public policy

• Career executives take a long climb up the organization ladder

• Career executives have reached the pinnacle of the career service and stay in place for long periods of time


• Political appointees are merely passing through the organization and are thus more likely to be loyal to the president and their political party

• As technical experts who spend all or most of their careers in a single organization, career executives tend to be dedicated to their agency’s health, mission, and clientele


Climbers, Zealots, Statesmen

Conservers, Advocates, Statesmen

These differences are further explained clearly by the ideal types (climbers, conservers, advocates, zealots, and statesmen) as presented by Downs (1967).

Political appointees’ short-term focus and their lack of complete job security implies that they are climbers, as compared to career executives whose long-term tenure give them job security and they are more likely to be conservers.

Political appointees are extremely ideological which makes their loyalty on policies of the political party, which makes them zealots, whereas career executives are rational people who become advocates for their organization than are political appointees, who are instead more likely to represent the president’s views. Both groups are likely to represent the public interest, although political appointees focus on supporting the president’s agenda and career official’s focus on the agency agenda (Heclo 1977; Maranto 1993).

Can Political Appointees and Career Executives Coexist Effectively in a Bureaucratic Society?

Political appointments are made occasionally, whereas appointment of career executives happens regularly. In addition, more often than not, ministers or political appointees find bureaucrats to be loyal and reliable, thus no need to not appoint and keep them. However, if career executives are found not loyal and reliable, ministers have a number of instruments to encourage compliance. Not least of such instruments is the power to transfer personnel, dismiss or not to renew their contract by advertising their position when the five-year contract runs out.

Research shows presidents can exert control over bureaucratic outputs in part by selecting political appointee’s intent on forcing resistant career executives to comply with the president’s agenda. The broader political environment and the president’s own priorities bound the extent of presidential control over the bureaucracy, and it involves a dynamic relationship between political appointees and career executives. Careful attention should however be made, to avoid situations where the political appointees influence career executives to commit fraud, corruption, or criminal activities in pursuit of the president’s agendas. If these differences are not well managed, career executives are bound to be fired and replaced with those perceived to be more willing to support the political appointees and ultimately president’s agendas.

Bureaucracy remains as the basis organizational and governance principles in governments, despite the trends towards politicization. The bureaucrats or career executives’ high turnover would lead to loss of coherence and institutional memory in public administration and seriously impair its performance (Heclo 1977). Hence, it is advisable that political appointees should exercise caution before applying their powers of appointment and firing to the fullest possible narrow-minded extent on career officials.

Politicians should understand that civil servants are simply “dispassionate, upright, and polite” and they can even be “frank and fearless.” As such, they are bound by their oath to professions and principles of bureaucracy. According to classical bureaucratic theory, the bureaucracy is essentially an impartial tool of execution with no special interests at heart (Weber 1968).

Political appointees should understand that merit appointments serving to strengthen the long-term capacity of the bureaucracy allow deserving civil officials growth. Career executives are there to serve the political end of contributing to long-term system capacity but disregard narrow party-political or personal motivations of politicians. However, bureaucrats are to shift their loyalties when ministers or governments change, and the civil service culture encourages such a view in most democratic countries.

Political appointees or ministers should not do the following, if they are to co-exist effectively with career executives:
  • Assume that career executives are less able or hard-working than their counterparts in the private sector.

  • Assume that career executives are unwilling to make changes in policies and/or programs. In fact, they typically have many good ideas for beneficial change.

  • Hold career executives responsible for policy decisions of previous government, president, or political appointees. They worked under the direction of the president and political appointees, as such they had responsibility to implement policy decisions that were legal and within the mandate of their departments or institutions.

  • Shield yourself from, and ostracize, career executives.

  • Assume that they “not on the team” when they advise on the possibilities and providing the options before implementing any policy decision.

To build a strong beneficial relationship political appointees or ministers should do the following, if they are to co-exist effectively with career executives:
  • Build a strong working relationship with career executives.

  • Develop open and honest communication to build trust, confidence, and understanding of one another.

  • Schedule, early in your term, an off-site meeting with your career executive group to establish working relationships and share information regarding policy directions and management issues.

  • Clearly articulate your vision, your objectives to the career executives and have a realistic agenda.

  • Be willing to be told what they cannot do (if rules and regulations will be breached) and ask for options from career officials.

  • Establish clear reporting channels and methods and solicit advice on anticipated problems with any decision.

Are Political Appointees as Competent as Career Executives Are?

Evidence exist from research studies on political appointees’ lack of management skills, policy expertise, leadership experience, and working networks that facilitate public management. As a result, government institutions or departments run by political appointees suffer from poor management. The frustrations brought by the incompetent political appointees often lead to high turnover of career executives. It is thus important that career executives run the bureaucratic operations of public institutions because they have skills and expertise. The political appointees can oversee and steer the institutions towards the political policies or ideologies of the government of the day.

A shift has, however, been noted whereby political appointees are now better educated than before and have likely served in government prior to their appointment. This might lead to improved quality from institutions run by political appointees. New evidence shows that political appointees stay longer than widely believed and are generally perceived as competent. However, this notion of educated political appointees does not apply to all nations in the world (Maranto 2005).

Scholars conclude that political appointees clearly plays an important role in the bureaucratic public administration system. However, they have less expertise and experience than career executives do. Political appointees are more loyal to the president who appointed them, which triggers corruptions fears and leading to high skepticisms from career executives.


With political appointee at the helm of government departments or institutions, there is a concern about lack of accountability, administrative inefficiency, and lack public confidence in government institutions (Peters and Pierre 2004). Due to threats, bureaucrats, or career executives may come to identify too strongly with ruling politicians and lose the ability to “speak truth to power.” On the other hand, political appointees and career executives have to coexist to envisage a well-functioning democratic system. Career executives exist to support politicians, while politicians can only functions effectively with much needed advise, support, and assistance from career officials.

Political appointees and career executives together have divergent and equally important roles to play in any bureaucratic public organization. However, their relationship is always hampered by role conflict. The minister is a politician (political appointee) and the director is an administrator (career executives) appointed for his/her expertise and for continuity. The political appointee provides the energy and political support needed to run a government, whereas the latter provide continuity, expertise, and institutional memory that can help run the institutions of government and ultimately to run government effectively. Politicians’ tenure is short and thus they constantly looking for new opportunities, and they exist to support ideological policies and their loyalty to the ruling-party or government of the day is unquestionable. Career executives on the other hand take the permanent supporting role with their loyalty unshaken for the effective and efficiency of the bureaucratic institution. Both groups have strong desires to serve the public and the nations (high concern for the public interests) (Maranto and Brewer 1998).

Political appointees and career executives’ high concern for public interests limits the inevitable role conflict that might hamper their relationship. As a result, a high level of trust and collaboration can be developed between the two groups based on this common ground of “high concern for public interests” (Maranto and Brewer 1998).

Political appointees who oversee the bureaucratic public institutions should be appointed through a careful selection and placement. Sound political appointees are more likely to collaborate with career executives to forge ahead effectively on all issues pertaining to public interests.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Industrial and Organizational Psychology DepartmentUniversity of South Africa (Unisa)PretoriaSouth Africa