Mission Misalignment

The cost of partisanship among federal workers

Two men walking past one another, one carrying a red translucent panel and the other a blue translucent panel.

A president appoints just 0.23% of the federal workforce. The vast majority of civil servants, then, carry on regardless of their party affiliation. But this inevitable political mismatch takes a toll—a new study has found reduced performance from workers misaligned with the president’s party.

“Some people might think there’s some sort of ‘deep state’ slowing things down,” says Haas Asst. Prof. Guo Xu, who conducted the research along with colleagues from Northwestern University, “but we see the same thing from the Republican side as the Democratic side. Based on our evidence, it looks like misaligned civil servants just become less motivated overall.”

The study spanned four administrations: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, and focused on some 7,200 procurement officers, who select and monitor federal contracts for services, construction projects, and more, amounting to over 9% of the federal budget.

Comparing similar contracts, the researchers found an 8% increase in cost overruns among contractors who were registered as Democrats under a Republican president and vice versa—even among officers within the same department in the same year.

“We didn’t see any change in how people were choosing contractors or the types of contracts, so the decline in performance occurred while they were overseeing the contract,” Xu says. “These overruns really do seem to be due to a decline in morale, which we corroborated through data from employee surveys.”

The relative continuity of the U.S. civil service contrasts with countries such as India, where there is far more political churn, which is in many ways a sign of a well-functioning bureaucracy, Xu says. However, he notes, the research underscores the potential costs and significant impact of mission misalignment in any organization.