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Agencies With Career Leaders Have More Satisfied Employees Than Those Led by Politicals, Report Finds

Tenure and expertise of career executives may cause workers to be more engaged.

Federal employees are typically more engaged in their jobs when being led by a career civil servant rather than a political appointee, a new report has found. 

Agency sub-components led by career Senior Executive Service employees held 12% higher job satisfaction scores than those led by presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed individuals, according to a review of 300 offices by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Employees at career employee-led components had an engagement score—a composite of several questions from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey involving job and workplace satisfaction—of 69.4 out of 100, seven basis points more than those at offices with Senate-confirmed leaders at the helm.

That did not hold true across the government. NASA, for example, is led by a presidential appointee, but has topped the Partnership’s best places to work in government list for several years. Still, the Partnership found a statistically significant difference and hypothesized several potential causes. 

Career leaders generally serve at agencies for longer periods, which provides more stability for their employees. Political appointees serve on average for just 2.5 years at their agencies, the Partnership found, making it difficult for them to motivate and empower their workforces. Higher rates of turnover also lead to more vacancies and more difficulty in implementing institutional reforms. Appointees can bring valuable fresh perspectives, the nonprofit good-government group said, but can also struggle to adapt to an organization’s culture in such a short period of time. 

“For most agencies, 2.5 years is not enough time to understand, plan, implement and evaluate the effectiveness of reforms that would impact employee development, support, empowerment or supervision,” the Partnership said. “Similarly, the loss of institutional knowledge with turnover may disrupt program continuity and make it harder for agencies to deliver on their missions.”

Senate-confirmed leaders—there are 1,100 such positions throughout government—see their roles differently than career executives. The priority they place on carrying out the president’s agenda often leads to a divergence from historical objectives within their agencies, which the Partnership found can challenge employees' sense of readiness and engagement. Employees’ skill sets can become less aligned to their jobs if there are significant shifts in the agencies’ activities. 

Career leaders, meanwhile, enter their jobs with years of experience and institutional knowledge, allowing for greater expertise in how to address longstanding problems. They have program and policy expertise and know the agency and its stakeholders. Some career executives simply head up smaller organizations, leading to higher levels of employee engagement because most staff are working closely on mission delivery. 

The Partnership has long called for fewer political appointees, highlighting the damage done by extended vacancies and the increasing dysfunction of the Senate. The number of appointees grew by 60% between 1960 and 2016. While appointees often enter their job with more energy and enthusiasm for risk taking, lawmakers and agencies must ensure the right mix of career and political leadership. 

“The presence, absence and management style of decisionmakers across agencies influences how an organization addresses its goals, the environment and behavior within agencies and even the posture stakeholders take towards that agency,” the Partnership said. 

Currently, agencies have a wide range of staff-to-appointee ratios. The Education Department has 230 career staffers for every one political appointee, while the Veterans Affairs Department has 31,000. NASA, the perennial “best place to work” in government, has a 4,000:1 ratio. 

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