Research News

Study aimed at keeping executive expertise in government

Katrina destruction in Louisiana
Chalmette, La., after being hit by Hurricane Katrina (Pattie Steib/iStock)

The best way to keep career federal civil servants from leaving for higher-paying private industry jobs is to provide them with opportunities to influence decisions in their agency, according to a study released by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University.

Losing capable, experienced employees from federal service jobs can have serious consequences, said study authors David Lewis and Anthony Bertelli. Replacing them can be difficult when the jobs require prior experience working in the agency.

“[rquote]For example, executive turnover in the Federal Emergency Management Agency definitely hurt the agency’s ability to respond to Hurricane Katrina[/rquote],” Lewis said. “The agency suffered from low morale and persistent vacancies in top management positions prior to the disaster.”

The study, published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, was undertaken by Lewis, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University and co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt; and Bertelli, the C.C. Crawford Chair in Management and Performance at the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development.

Using data collected from a web-based survey of nearly 2,400 appointed and career federal executives conducted by the Princeton Survey Research Center in 2007-2008, Lewis and Bertelli found that turnover among long-serving executives in federal agencies is usually the result of outside job opportunities and reduced influence over policy decisions.

“Career executives in the agencies where political appointees have the most influence are the most likely to leave,” Lewis said. “[lquote]You do not work your entire career to get to the top positions just to be overruled repeatedly by political appointees who come in from outside the agency.”[/lquote] Other factors that influence career executives to leave are pay freezes and potential cuts in federal salaries.

“Appointed executives that want to keep long-serving careerists do have some flexibility in manipulating formal and informal rewards inside the agency,” Lewis said. “Public management is increasingly about responding effectively to the difficult management environment created by pay freezes and political battles in order to ensure effective administration of government.”