Monday 23 September 2019

Kara Alaimo: 'Trump's revolving door policy is a recipe for disaster'

Fraught: Chief of staff John Kelly has had a troubled relationship with Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
Fraught: Chief of staff John Kelly has had a troubled relationship with Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

Kara Alaimo

Donald Trump last weekend said that his chief of staff, General John Kelly, would step down by the end of the year.

Mr Kelly's departure will add to the records the Trump administration has already set for turnover at the most senior levels of government.

According to the Brookings Institution, 34pc of executive office staffers departed in the first year of the administration. (The president with the next highest rate of year one among the previous five was Ronald Reagan, at 17pc.)

This revolving door is almost certain to hurt Trump. Political scientists are clear that White House staff turnover prevents presidents from achieving their goals.

In his 2008 book 'The Politics of Presidential Appointments: Political Control and Bureaucratic Performance,' Vanderbilt University political scientist David E Lewis said the average Senate-confirmed presidential political appointee stays in his or her post for two years, with even shorter tenures at lower levels; the average corporate chief executive is on the job for five to seven years.

"Increased turnover creates leadership vacuums, sends mixed signals about agency goals, and diminishes an agency's commitment to reform, resulting in generally poorer performance," he wrote.

"Appointees are often in office just long enough to establish new priorities and start new initiatives - but not enough to see them through to completion."

For example, last week Mr Trump nominated William Barr to be the next US attorney general.

The Department of Justice has already seen three acting heads in addition to Jeff Sessions, who lasted less than two years - not long enough to develop and fully implement a new agenda. It remains to be seen what direction it will pursue under Mr Barr, if he is confirmed.

Another way high turnover prevents presidents from getting things done is by creating what the Harvard University political scientist Hugh Heclo termed "a government of strangers".

Heclo found the short tenure of presidential appointees creates an absence of teamwork in government. Since people are always coming and going, staffers never build the relationships necessary to work effectively to get things done.

In his 2005 book 'Beyond a Government of Strangers: How Career Executives and Political Appointees Can Turn Conflict to Cooperation', the political scientist Robert Maranto reported that some civil servants now refer to presidential appointees as the "Christmas help". This suggests career staff may not even make the effort to share expertise and information if they're not expected to be around very long.

Heclo found that appointees stay in their roles for such a short time that they depart about the time they have finally discovered how to perform their tasks.

For example, in my interviews with appointees who served in the Barack Obama and George W Bush administrations, they told me they started to feel comfortable in their jobs after six months and mastered them after about a year. But, in less than two years, Mr Trump has already had four national security advisers.

From a public relations perspective, a steady exodus also creates a perception of chaos that is unlikely to be reassuring to the 57pc of Americans who believe Mr Trump does not have good leadership skills and the 55pc who think he's not fit to be president, according to a Quinnipiac poll in September.

Telling people. "You're fired" may have been a good strategy when Mr Trump starred in 'The Apprentice' but it's not transferable to the White House. If the president wants his senior staff to set and meet goals, he needs to keep them around long enough for them to do so.


Alaimo is assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of 'Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication'. She previously served in the Obama administration

Irish Independent

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