The U.S. government is doing more with less. According to political scientist John Diulio, federal spending in the United States has quadrupled in real dollars since 1960 while the size of the federal workforce has declined slightly. A large proportion of the new spending since 1960 is targeted at ambitious efforts to do things like alleviate poverty or improve national educational performance. These programs are implemented through complex networks of contracts and grants to state or local governments. Expert federal managers have never been more important to governance. Unfortunately, new data suggest that they are increasingly in short supply.
Expert federal managers have never been more important to governance.
This week Vanderbilt researchers released the results of a survey of 3,551 federal executives conducted in cooperation with Princeton University and the Volcker Alliance. The survey revealed three disconcerting facts about federal management.
First, 35 percent of politically appointed executives indicated that they were likely or very likely to leave their positions in the next 12 months. And, almost the whole set will leave after the election. By comparison, a recent analysis of private sector turnover by Strategy& (formerly Booz and co.) found that 13 percent of CEOs of Fortune 2,500 firms left their positions in 2014.
35 percent of politically appointed executives indicated that they were likely or very likely to leave their positions in the next 12 months.
If these numbers reflect actual departure rates, and most projections inside a year are usually only inflated slightly, we have real cause for concern. This kind of immense turnover makes it difficult for agencies to engage in long term planning, conduct high-level inter-agency cooperation, and effectively direct agencies and programs. Few of us would invest our retirement funds in a firm that was losing one third of its executive team. We would worry about the effects of this turnover on innovation and the rollout of new products. How would such a firm develop the right kind of culture and hire and keep the right people? Indeed, it would be a remarkable organization that could withstand that kind of upheaval.
Second, only 56 percent of politically appointed executives agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “I have a good understanding the key statutes related to managing the career civil service” (compared to 80 percent for career executives). Only 45 percent of political appointees agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I have received sufficient training in how to manage the career civil service” (compared to 72 percent for career executives). Poor planning and regular turnover make appointee training episodic at best.
Third, it turns out that this kind of knowledge and training is important for the efficacy and integrity of federal management. Executives who reported less knowledge of key statutes were more likely to report that employees were promoted on factors other than performance and ability (such as tenure or political connections). Indeed, 23 percent of executives who disagreed with the statement “I have a good understanding of the key statutes related to managing the career civil service” reported that promotions of non-managers in their agency are based solely on performance and ability. This compares with 42 percent of executives who agreed with the statement. Executives who reported low levels of knowledge of key statutes were also less likely to reassign or dismiss an underperforming employee. Eighty-four percent of executives who indicated that they did not know key statutes reported that underperforming non-managers were “rarely or never” reassigned or dismissed. This compares with 63 percent of executives who reported that they did know the rules.
Clearly, promoting solely on the basis of merit in public service is difficult as is reassigning or dismissing underperforming employees. However, these actions are significantly more difficult when you do not know the rules. Our system of management is vulnerable to regular leadership turnover and poorly trained executives. Survey results indicate a number of challenges confronting the federal personnel system but all of them are influenced by the expertise and quality of federal managers.
Only 55 percent of eligible career executives indicated that they want to join the highest levels of executive management.
We are fortunate to have a cadre of experienced permanent career professionals to direct agencies amidst all of the turnover but even here there is concern. Twenty-four percent of top career executives said they were “likely” or “very likely” to leave in the next 12 months. Only 55 percent of eligible career executives indicated that they want to join the highest levels of executive management by becoming a member of the Senior Executive Service or a Senior Professional. Three years of pay freezes and benefits cuts have made other jobs or retirement seem more attractive.
So, what is to be done to ensure more expert federal management? One solution is to reduce the number of appointees. This would decrease turnover among top-level executives by limiting the influence of the electoral cycle on day-to-day management. It would also open up jobs for career executives and encourage them to stay. As Congress considers various facets of federal management reform, one component that should be on the table is a reduction in the number of appointees. Such a reduction would lead to more experienced federal management and give our government a better chance to do more even when it has less.