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Heclo: A government of strangers

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

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?


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:

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



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.


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.

Research on similar subjects


Comparative PoliticsBureaucracyPrincipal-Agent

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