Federal Manager's Daily Report

Filling senior positions on only an acting basis–as has been done commonly during the present administration and before–contributes to a range of agency management problems, a House hearing was told.

The hearing focused on the SSA, which has had only acting leadership since 2003, but similar problems arise across all agencies with only temporary leadership, witnesses said.

In many cases the positions are filled by career federal employees, while in others political appointees are brought in temporarily. While both types of acting leaders may be well qualified, Partnership for Public Service president Max Stier said, “acting officials often are not able to operate with the full perceived authority that flows from Senate confirmation.

“Some acting officials do not feel like it is their place to make long-term policy, operational, or management decisions that will bind their successors . . . high-level vacancies in particular can have the effect of slowing decision-making, ultimately diluting agencies’ ability to best serve the public interest. For example, the Partnership believes that over the years, frequent and often lengthy vacancies at the Department of Homeland Security have been a key driver of the agency’s performance and morale challenges,” he said.

He said that of 683 positions requiring Senate confirmation the Partnership identifies as most important, nominees have been confirmed for 273, nominees have not been confirmed for 139, nominations have been announced but not formally made for eight, and no nominations have even been announced for the rest. That lags the rates of each of the three predecessor administrations at this point in their terms.

He added: “Vacancies also create ripple effects that can cause stress on the agency. When leadership positions are vacant, employees may feel uncertainty about the future direction of their agency. Also, each level of leader must move up a notch in a temporary capacity when there is a vacancy. This disrupts agency operations and in reality puts many leaders in the position of being ‘dual-hatted’ – they assume duties of the position one notch above but are expected to ensure the execution of their regular jobs.”