The revelation that Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was even less qualified in emergency management than previously thought has strangly not raised to prominance the fundimental issue about the constitutional structure of the United States that allowed someone like this to lead an important federal agency.

Unlike Europe’s professional civil services, the United States still has a patronage system of Presidential appoinments that spreads far below the ministerial level into the upper reaches of the professional federal bureaucracy. Unlike most western countries, the U.S. bureaucracy includes a large number of political appointees, particularly in senior leadership roles. The U.S. President can appoint around 3,000 people to leadship positions in the executive branch.

Earlier this month, I saw a journalist from Le Monde bring this up on Dateline London, BBC News 24’s Sunday morning show featuring London-based foreign correspondents, but it hasn’t been a prominant frame for the post-Katrina debate.

As Tim Worstall mentioned today, cronyism is not unique to the present adminstration in Washington; the case of Michael Brown is othe consequence of a bigger systematic problem:

… those political loyalists (as opposed to career civil service types or other trained professionals) running the bureaucracies. This is a systematic failure of the American system, not one limited to one particular administration (however badly they appear to be doing it). There’s some 3,000 spaces (maybe an old figure) in the Federal system that have to be filled by an incoming administration. Note, not particularly by the winning party but by the Administration. Which, in that Nov/Dec period trying to assign these people, did not actually know until what, June? that they were even going to be the party candidate, let alone form the next administration. And this continues at State level of course.

It’s one of the things that truly puzzles people in the UK, why you do this. We have a very different system (largely speaking, it’s fraying at the edges now) whereby the Civil Service is a strictly professional organisation. A new administration replaces the outgoing Cabinet and Ministers of State (about 100 all told) but the Civil Service itself stays intact, the aim being (however much it fails) a well oiled machine ready to respond to changes of direction from the new political masters.

Americans are now rightly examining the credentials and political backgrounds of what one influential liberal blogger calls the “FEMA flunkies” in their region. The regional FEMA director for the Pacific northwest, John Pennington, has already been shown to have little relevant experience to go with his degree from a diploma mill.

But this is a problem that extends well beyond emergency management and into all areas of the American public service. The International Public Management blog recently noted a paper by Princeton professor David E. Lewis, showing that Federal programs run by political appointees “get systematically lower management grades than bureau chiefs drawn from the Civil Service”.

So why did it take an epic disaster for journalists to notice that “Brownies” run the executive branch? Why aren’t CV-padding political cronies routinely uncovered a few days after they are appointed? It’s well-known that many appointments are made on the basis of patronage rather than competence, and that it is not necessarily in the best interests of the country. So why aren’t these people routinely scrutinised by reporters covering their agencies?

I checked Lexis-Nexis for media coverage or scrutiny of Michael Brown’s appointment. Nobody in the United States covered it, let alone scrutinised his credentials. Short of significant constitutional change, the patronage system is going to be a fixture of American political life. As long as this is the case, journalists should spend the first few months of a new presidency keeping a close eye on whether those appointed to the senior reaches of the executive branch are up to the job.