Coase-Sandor Working Paper Series in Law and Economics

Strategic subdelegation

Brian D. Feinstein
Jennifer Nou


Appointed leaders of administrative agencies routinely record subdelegations of governmental authority to civil servants. That appointees willingly cede authority in this way presents a puzzle, at least at first glance: Why do these appointees assign their power to civil servants insulated by merit protection laws, that is, to employees over whom they have limited control? This article develops and tests a theory to explain this behavior. Using original data on appointee-to-civil servant delegations and a measure of the ideological distance between these two groups of actors, we show that appointees are more willing to vest power in civil servants when the two groups are more closely aligned. They are particularly likely to do so in the last months of a presidential administration, prior to a transition to a new set of appointees from a different party. Essentially, appointees strategically devolve authority to ideologically similar civil servants to entrench their views in the face of oppositional future presidential administrations. Further, judicial doctrine and interest-group politics can make existing subdelegations difficult to reverse. This stickiness adds to the strategic value of subdelegations as a means of projecting preferences into future administrations. These findings raise important implications for administrative law and governance. One conventional wisdom on intra-agency dynamics considers appointees and civil servants as rivals. Relatedly, studies of personnel practices focus on strategies to empower appointees and sideline civil servants. This article, by contrast, shows how appointees and civil servants can act as strategic partners under certain conditions. At a time when leading political figures propose fundamental changes to the civil service, our findings call for a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics between political appointees and civil servants.