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A management lesson for President Trump: government works better when morale is high

Can the bureaucracy really “revolt” against Donald Trump? Leadership experts weigh in. 

President Trump Holds Joint Press Conference With Japanese PM Shinzo Abe Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Presidents often clash with branches of the federal government. Most famous, perhaps, is the high levels of mistrust between President John F. Kennedy and the Pentagon in dealing with the Cuban missile crisis. The Pentagon favored an invasion of Cuba and thought Kennedy was naive and shy about the Soviet threat. Kennedy favored restraint and thought the Pentagon officials, left to their own devices, would bring the world to nuclear war. Kennedy’s greatest success, historian Robert Dallek writes in an Atlantic retrospective, was fending off not the Soviets but the voices that contradicted him inside the Pentagon.

The scenario isn’t perfectly analogous to President Donald Trump and his feud with the intelligence community. But it goes to show that tensions between the president and branches of the federal government can alter the course of history.

Trump’s long-simmering feud with the nation’s intelligence agencies came to a head this week when anonymous sources leaked to the New York Times that the Trump camp was in contact with Russian intelligence officers during the campaign. Trump responded, saying that the leaks themselves were the real scandal.

The reported feud continues to escalate. The Wall Street Journal reported last night that intelligence officials have actually withheld information from the president, due to trust issues.

Elsewhere, there are signs of friction between the federal agencies that Trump manages and the president himself. The Washington Post reported on federal employees holding workshops on how to engage in civil disobedience, and that several hundred employees signed a document dissenting to Trump’s refugee ban.

We’re still only a month into the Trump administration, and some of this tension is to be expected. But if it continues — and if Trump continues to publicly criticize and dismiss the nation’s intelligence apparatus — can he really hope to effectively run the government? Kennedy did through the Cuban Missile Crisis and is celebrated for his coolheaded judgment to this day. (President Obama also dealt with clashes from his agencies. In 2015, he issued a warning to border control agents who might disagree with his forgiving stance on undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.)

I talked to a few experts on government management, and while they say the president is somewhat immune to changes in government morale, he’d be wise to harness it.

“No American president can succeed in foreign policy — and by extension his term as commander-in-chief — without a good relationship with the intelligence community,” Brookings terrorism expert Daniel Benjamin has written. In the long run, can Trump get much done without the backing of an agency?

It’s hard to manage people when morale is low

Basic management best practices suggest the answer to that question is no.

“You don’t win by creating a battle within your own organization,” said Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that promotes best practices in government management. Stier has worked in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government, and has made a career of studying their effectiveness.

Stier explains that a president doesn’t need agencies to wholeheartedly support his policies to be able govern effectively. The permanent civil service in Washington is used to changes in political power.

“Public employees are trained to carry out their duties no matter who is in office,” James Caillier, who researches public management at the University of Alabama, says in an email. “That said, there is a fine line between being highly effective and moderately effective.”

What Trump does need is their morale. “I do expect … performance to drop as morale drops,” Caillier says. “Low morale has a negative impact on turnover, and turnover can have a serious impact on performance, especially in the intelligence community where it takes time to recruit and train employees.”

In the private sector, good customer service is correlated with employee morale. And the same applies to the federal government — it works better when people feel like the president thinks their jobs matter. A study on the Veterans Affairs health care system found that when VA employees feel greater empowerment in their work, they are less stressed, there’s less turnover, and they are more effective at bringing down health care costs.

Don Kettle, a professor at public policy at the University of Maryland, brings up FEMA as an arm of the federal government that has made great improvements in operations in part by boosting morale. “Big improvements in leadership followed [Hurricane Katrina], and the response to Superstorm Sandy was much better,” he reminds.

“It doesn’t help the president of the United States to have an antagonistic relationship with the people who are ultimately trying to help him succeed,” Stier says. “It is in his interest that he communicates to them that they matter. And their work matters. And for him to be listening.”

(For what it’s worth, Stier says Trump’s education and homeland security secretaries struck the right notes with federal employees when they were confirmed. Betsy DeVos told the Education Department after she was confirmed, “I’m here with you, alongside you, to serve our nation’s students.”)

Stier’s organization regularly conducts polling on morale across government agencies, but it does not yet have data on whether Trump’s transition is bringing down morale. So it may be that there isn’t a widespread morale problem across the government — we just don’t know yet.

Ultimately, effective management in the government flows from the top down

Elaine Kamarck, the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, says it probably won’t be the case that the government ceases to function. She reminds: Even if government agencies fiercely disagree with the president, they still have other bosses to hold them accountable.

“Remember they have basically two bosses, not just the president,” she says. “They’re very accountable to Congress, and, in fact, more accountable to Congress than the president because the Congress gives them their money.”

Primarily, a federal worker’s job is to uphold laws. That’s an ideal bigger than the president. And being president is not like being the CEO of a company. A CEO of a company can close down a division if it’s underperforming. “A president can’t close down a Cabinet department,” says Kamarck. That would need an act of Congress.

If there’s chaos in the management of the federal government, she says, it won’t be the fault of low-level federal workers. They’ll follow even the most byzantine and red-tape-filled directives under the law to the best of their ability.

Dysfunction flows from the top down. Consider Trump’s rollout of his immigration executive orders. The “Muslim ban” was ambiguous about the treatment of US green card holders, and was hastily challenged and overturned. Chaos was built into it. Or consider the federal hiring freeze he ordered: Experts on government efficiency say it’s likely to make the government work less efficiently.

Trump prides himself on his management capabilities. And people who approve of his job performance so far rate him as being an effective manager. Sixty-five percent of people who “strongly approve” of Trump’s presidency say he is an effective manager, according to a recent SurveyMonkey online poll. But he could lose that perceived credibility easily in mismanaging the federal bureaucracy.

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