Why senior civil servants quit when the White House changes hands

Rose Jacobs | Apr 05, 2017

Sections Economics Public Policy

Collections Politics

During last year’s campaign for the US presidency, a quarter of federal employees surveyed by Government Executive said a Trump victory might spur them to leave their jobs. Some said they anticipated embarrassment over having President Donald Trump as their boss. Others expressed ideological clashes.

For some of these government workers, the first months of the Trump administration provided ample reason to feel demoralized—from an executive order curtailing agencies’ ability to make new rules to accusations by the White House that civil servants are undermining the government. Conversely, some Trump fans have been musing since the election about a “deep state,” a supposed conspiracy among career government employees to thwart the will of elected officials.

It’s too early to say if the Trump administration will preside over a mass exodus. But increased turnover wouldn’t be unique to 2017. Research by Alexander Bolton of Emory, John M. de Figueiredo of Duke, and Vanderbilt’s David E. Lewis suggests presidential elections consistently increase turnover in the top ranks of the federal bureaucracy.

Turnover by executive managers was 20 percent higher than the baseline turnover rate in the year following an election. 

The study looked at more than two decades of personnel data concerning 3.5 million federal employees working anywhere other than in defense-related departments, and finds that in the first year after a presidential election during that period, many more than usual high-ranking civil servants left their jobs—with departures concentrated at agencies where the guiding political philosophy stood in contrast to the new president’s, such as the Environmental Protection Agency under a Trump administration.

Turnover by civil servants who were executive managers (serving just below the political appointees who lead agencies) rose by 1.6 percentage points in the first year following an election—a 20 percent increase on a baseline turnover rate of 8 percent—compared with any other year. Civil servants lower down the ranks but still in supervisory roles were 4 percent more likely to go.

The data, newly available and covering 1988 to 2011, show that a change in political party at the White House further increased the chances that an executive civil servant quit or retired. And when executive-level bureaucrats found themselves working for a president whose ideology clashed with that of their agency, the likelihood that they left the federal government rose following that president’s election, peaking three years into the new administration, when turnover was 23 percent higher than the baseline rate.

Such churn should worry even those politicians happy to push out their ideological opponents, as the loss of expertise and institutional memory can damage a government’s ability to get things done. “[Continuity], in theory, allows for organizational effectiveness even in the face of changing policy priorities, giving new leaders the opportunity to implement their programs,” write the researchers.

There might be solace in an anomaly uncovered by the study: federal employees with upper-level positions but who were not yet managers or team leaders behaved differently from their superiors when it came to new administrations. Their odds of leaving actually dropped in the first year following a presidential election. The researchers hypothesize that these workers were playing the long game: with so many bosses heading for the exit, someone needed to fill their shoes. High-level, nonmanagerial employees might calculate that they can stomach the occasional ideological battle—if it comes with a promotion.