Devin brings up another good point that I should add to/clarify (sorry for the additional posts but they’re too long for the comments):
Even in most corporations CEO’s don’t really make decisions – they get handed choices by their subordinates, and usually the subordinates will lead the CEO one way or another. For instance, in my company the CEO is not technical, so if we tell him we need to spend time rewriting feature X, he has to believe us. Or we can give him multiple choices that force him to act the right way.
What makes it work is that we do have an incentive to make the choice we want him to pick actually be the right choice. It’s not good for us if we totally screw up a decision.
The civil service can work the same way. The civil servants want to come up with a good decision, because they do not want a screw up and get a lot of political heat. So there ends up being a balance between accountability and not having a spoils system.
I agree that the decision-making process I described for the government is largely similar to the process that occurs in other bureaucracies (including any decent-sized company). My larger point was that an election which changes the party in power does not (for all intents and purposes) change anyone involved in the decision making process.
I’ll go a step further and say that this process is not necessarily worse than the obvious alternative, i.e. actually letting elected politicians make the decisions. God help us all if that were to happen. So, I’ll also agree that most civil servants are good people who really do want to make the right decisions.
The root of the problem (which perhaps I should have emphasized more clearly) is that – with respect to the government decision-making process – responsibility has been completely severed from authority.
Finally, it’s not always clear that "political heat" is bad for federal employees. Want to guess whether average salaries at healthcare agencies will go up or down after passage of healthcare reform? Care to make the same guess for the financial agencies after the financial crisis? Congress even protects employees of federal agencies that are being eliminated. If Aretae is correct that the feedback system defines the system, then this system is royally screwed up since it completely lacks a feedback system.