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Heclo: A government of strangers

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Heclo. 1977. A government of strangers: Executive politics in Washington.



The book's main objective is to explore the process by which high-ranking political executives and bureaucrats interact with each other in Washington. Political executive officers are supposed to guide and control, rather than merely reflect, the various interests in the executive branch. However, they are ill-suited to do so: they come to power being strangers and amateurs. Heclo studies the relationship between executives (presidential appointees) and bureaucrats (civil servants). The former are interested in political control, and the latter in policy continuity.


General research question: Can politicians guide what government does by controlling the people who do it? To what extent does appointment power make political control of the bureaucracy possible?

  • What are the implications of the politicization of the bureaucracy for political control (as embodied in political executives) and bureaucratic autonomy (as embodied in high-level civil servants) within the executive branch?
  • How do political executives (interested in political control) and bureaucrats (interested in administrative continuity, bureaucratic autinomy) interact with each other in Washington?


High ranking civil servants strike a balance between the demands of political executives and bureaucrats. Bureaucracies pit the ambitions and plans of career bureaucrats against those of political appointees, who are at an organizational and informational disadvantage. Because the process of career advancement of high-ranking civil servants has been politicized, they may balance the demands of political executives and bureaucrats.

High ranking career officials who are part of a civil service system add a third dimension to the interaction between political executives and bureaucrats. They are supposed to be responsive to the legal authority of political heads, but they also have institutional responsibilities and a longer time horizon than the political heads. "The civil service idea in Washington may be a counterpoint for balancing strictly political and bureaucratic demands, but it rests on slippery foundations" (32).

Political executives can usually do better by evoking conditional cooperation rather than invoking their authority. (220) Conditional cooperation comes from developing trust with civil servants, building alliances within the agency and outside the agency (interest groups, media, other agencies, administration), and choosing strategically which goals to pursue.

Place in the Literature:

Sides with Seidman (1998), Neustadt (1960) regarding the power of the presidency and the constraints imposed by the internal structure of the executive. Does not address the issue of congressional dominance directly (thus, neither confirms nor denies). Discussion of "marrying the natives" suggests some degree of bureaucratic independence.

General Argument:

  • Presidential campaigns do not produce action programs that can be precisely legislated and then put into play by the bureaucracy.
  • Transition teams are likely to be poorly organized and political appointments (and the movements of their bureaucratic counterparts) are made after the fact.
  • Therefore, these decisions are made in haste under incomplete information. Under these circumstances, it is reasonable to believe that executives will use criteria on which information is available (i.e. political affiliation and service to the party or its members) as a basis for decision-making.
  • Higher-level staffing decisions, even within the civil service, become de facto political appointments (with political attachments to both the executive and relevant congressional actors, i.e. subgovernments and iron triangles).
  • Relationship of top civil servants and political appointees is therefore "smudgy," i.e. not well defined. Because this relationship is not well defined, there is an absence of political and policy leadership within the bureaucracy. Political appointees "go native," undermining presidential control, while bureaucrats are increasingly controlled by elected officials.
  • For this reason, policy implementation within the bureaucracy is not characterized by rational, hierarchical modes of interaction, but rather by establishing cooperation. This occasions the development of strategic planning and support-coalition formation.
    • The original purpose of the civil service is undermined.
    • Principal-agent relations are not clearly established and information is not efficiently disseminated.

Suggested shape of reform:

The establishment of a senior civil service (called Federal Executive Officers) in which rank is attached to individuals, not to jobs (unclear how this would bring about more predictable relationships between bureaucrats and political appointees, although it would make for the routinization of the post-filling process).


Interviews with 200 civil servants and political appointees from different departments and at different career stages.

Chapter-by-Chapter Notes


  • Y: Why are some political executives able to handle their bureaucratic relations in a more productive form than others?
  • X: Politicians who are able to help themselves and to ask for help from "key actors" (bureaucrats and civil service) will have better and more efficient bureaucratic relations.


  • Political executives can receive support from experienced mentors above them.
  • Political executives can receive important information form the appointee's predecessor in the organization.
  • By reinforcing their lines of trust and extending their circles of confidence, political executive can build resources for becoming more credible, effective participants.

Help from others: Political executives also need to look downward for the kind of assistance that civil services were invented to provide: knowledgeable ability to warn and propose, and institutionalized responsiveness to help carry out executive decisions.


  • Hypothesis (answer of the research question in chapter 1): Political executives can usually do better by evoking conditional cooperation rather than by invoking their authority.
  • X: Conditional cooperation: It implies a kind of cooperation that is conditional on the mutual performance of the political appointees and the civil servants. It emphasizes the need of executive and bureaucrats to work at relationships that depend on contingencies of one another's actions, not on preconceived ideas of strict supervision or harmonious goodwill. Therefore, the basis for the executives' leadership becomes strategic rather than "take it or leave it".

X: The use of strategic resources to create commitments to mutual performance: This includes the use of political influence, the control and management of time and circumstances with a strategic purpose, communication resources, the selection of goals and opportunities, and the use of people. However, no matter how much executives connect with the rest of the agency, sabotage is always present.