Working a government job and having military experience, I have learned to not expect too much in the area of knowledge, skills and abilities in my supervisors and managers.
I’m sure there are studies showing this or that as a reason behind my observations, but I believe it mainly is bad management tends to perpetuate itself in various ways.
Cronyism (and worse nepotism) is one way bad management selects incompetent employees. Although the civil service system is technically designed to bring in the best qualified candidates, in reality it is still often “who you know.” Many are hired/promoted based on recommendations from friends, family, political donors, or superiors. This often results in an outsider with no skill or knowledge of the job at hand now taking charge of a unit or section. At least this failure to actually get the best for the job is expected in the political appointee level, but it should not be happening in the actual get the job done career civil servant levels.
Another way bad management perpetuates itself is the zero-defect mentality that is often seen in law enforcement organizations. This results in the promotion of politically correct individuals that just cannot get the job done due to fear of failure. For example, in law enforcement, the good patrol officer makes a large number of public contacts which opens them up to a number of complaints. Doing the job correctly is not going to keep everyone happy. On the other hand, the bad officer that avoids pissing people off by avoiding doing his job will have a nice clean record from rarely getting complaints. Unfortunately, the same minimized exposure to conflicts in the field also leads to less experience dealing with conflicts which is something good managers/supervisors have to do. The problem here is the one with the “clean” record is more likely to be promoted by a conflict avoiding management team.
Seniority can also a factor in some departments. Some still believe the most senior person should be in-charge. This can work in short term situations, but in many cases, a person who doesn’t work at getting promoted doesn’t really want the responsibility. Not everyone is a leader.
It’s almost impossible to fire incompetent civil servants. I’m sure most have heard about incompetent people being fired and then getting their job reinstated. It takes a huge amount of documentation over a prolonged period of time to terminate a government employee. To be fired, a government employee must do really something stupid, often by both committing a felony and embarrassing the department.
The only way to fix these defects is to start at the top with an ethical leader that instills a true civil servant attitude in his/her management team. The goal should be to always remember that they work for the taxpayer and should make decisions based on this.