The Perils of Patronage

One of the strangest and yet most common features of government is the appointment of personal friends and campaign supporters to positions of profile and influence.

While on the one hand such appointments are perfectly understandable – dispensing garden variety patronage jobs and even high-profile positions is an easy way of rewarding loyalty and support – on the other they are fraught with risk and place both appointee and appointing official in the crosshairs of public opinion, the electorate and, in extreme cases, law enforcement.

This is particularly true when an appointee is unqualified, unprepared or unsuitable for the position to which he is appointed.

We can all understand why an appointee might grab at the chance to be put in charge of something impressive and important, even if his background might be less than relevant to the position. Power and profile are enticing.

But the risks to the appointing official are arguably just as great. What if the appointee is embarrassingly or dangerously incompetent? What if his qualifications are clearly inadequate and he is demonstrably not up to the task?

Of course, not every appointee, no matter how qualified on paper or how accomplished in life, will do a sterling job even in a position for which she is perfectly suited. Government and public service are challenging under the best of circumstances, and events often overtake the most competent among us.

At the same time, when appointments are made that are obviously based upon criteria or “qualifications” unrelated to the duties of the position in question, it calls into question the appointing official’s credibility and the seriousness with which she takes her responsibilities.

A recent piece in the Wilson Quarterly, entitled, “Heck of a Job, Appointee,” discusses a larger study of presidential patronage appointments and highlights the perils and dangerous outcomes that can emerge when patronage supersedes qualifications.

Typically, the White House appoints 3,000 – 4,000 to policy or confidential positions. The temptation to toss some of these positions the way of fundraisers and personal connections must be irresistible.

Given that there are so many positions to fill, I’m not naïve enough to expect every such appointment to be made on blind merit.

At the same time, if we look at presidential, gubernatorial, ministerial and other appointments to positions of high influence, we might be discouraged to see that those who ascend to some such positions are not necessarily qualified or truly ready to do the people’s work.

This is a universal issue, not limited to any one office or jurisdiction. It’s as common as the rain.

Still, when the stakes are high – in defense, public safety and international relations, for example – we really ought to expect the best. We deserve the best.

At the very least, in the words of President Clinton, we can do better.

Here, once again, is the link to the article in the Wilson Quarterly.