Who Is Most Likely to Leave Government During the First Year of a New Administration?

Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP

Federal agencies, encumbered by President Trump’s hiring freeze, may soon find expanding vacancies as employees head for the exits.

About 6 percent of the federal workforce typically leaves government in the first year of a new administration, according to new academic research, and that number tends to climb in the highest ranks of the civil service.

Nearly 10 percent of Senior Executive Service employees leave in the first year after a new president is sworn into office, according to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, up from 8 percent on average. The departure rate also increases at agencies with missions that stand in contrast with the party holding the White House. The researchers analyzed decades of data supplied by the Office of Personnel Management that allowed them to track the careers of millions of individual federal employees.

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A “regular pattern” emerged from that data, according to David Lewis, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, in which more employees leave in the first year of a new administration than any other. Lewis and his colleagues also found the departures ticked up at agencies “mismatched” with the views of the president. They defined agencies as liberal, moderate or conservative based on surveys of experts, noting previous research that found employees tend to self-select to agencies with missions they support.

The Environmental Protection Agency is labeled as a liberal agency, for example, while certain law enforcement agencies are labeled as conservative. The federal employee turnover rate increased to 6.5 percent at “mismatched” agencies, the researchers found. The SES turnover rate jumped to 10.2 percent at such agencies.

“If the past is any indication, the Trump administration will lead to turnover among senior federal personnel, particularly in agencies with views that most differ from the White House,” the researchers wrote.

To Lewis, whose study was originally published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, those findings made sense.

“The higher up you go in the hierarchy, the higher up in the GS scale, the more affected they are by elections,” he said. Senior executives are “perceived with the most skepticism” from the new administration, and face possibly “being sidelined.” They also have significant experience and therefore have more job opportunities outside government. Lewis noted, however, that as SESers and GS-15s leave, it creates promotion opportunities for those in lower ranks. GS-13 and 14 employees, he said, leave at a lower rate.

Generally, Lewis said, federal employees fall into four categories in a new administration: quitting in protest; waiting it out and keeping their heads down; staying to “make a difference” as a check on the president; or finding excitement and optimism in the new leadership. In a recent series of interviews, Government Executive spoke with employees across government who fell into each of those baskets. A Government Business Council/GovExec.com survey found one in four federal employees were at least considering leaving government as a result of Trump’s election.

Lewis said most academic work that has focused on government service has neglected its “distinctive feature,” namely elections. His goal was not to focus on Trump in particular or any specific election, but to identify patterns in the careers of government workers.

If Trump is reelected, he will likely face less upheaval in his second term. Younger executives who replaced those who left in the early years of the new administration have less incentive to leave, the researchers found, though employees who stuck around at well-matched agencies tend to start trickling out. 

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