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‘Liberal’ government agencies will lose more managers in the age of Trump

Liberal-leaning government agencies this year are likely to lose more top managers than those considered conservative, because of the election of a Republican president, according to a study of the turnover of federal employees after elections.

“If the past is any indication, the advent of the Trump Administration will lead to turnover among senior federal personnel, particularly in agencies with views that differ most from the new administration,” says David E. Lewis, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Political Science. “Some next-in-line managers will look at the openings as an opportunity, but this will not offset the disruption caused by the new administration across the government.”

Three researchers including Lewis analyzed records of the resignations of federal employees between 1988 and 2011 and reported their findings Feb. 20 on the Harvard Business Review website. The statistics come from the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management.

Because of the election of President Trump, a Republican, the resignations will be more numerous at agencies that are traditionally liberal, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Labor Department, say Lewis and his co-authors Alexander D. Bolton, assistant professor of political science at Emory University, and John M. de Figueiredo, the Edward and Ellen Marie Schwarzman Professor of Law at Duke University.

David E. Lewis (Vanderbilt)
David E. Lewis (Vanderbilt University)

“Unions representing employees in Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border protection endorsed President Trump during the campaign,” Lewis says. “(Trump) responded in his first week in office by pledging increased funding and resources for these agencies. Employees in other parts of the federal government such as the National Park Service responded with outright resistance, including anti-administration tweets and leaks to the press. It turns out, these differences matter for turnover.”

There are 2.8 million federal employees over nearly 300 agencies in the United States. Previous research has established that liberal workers tend to take jobs at agencies that are traditionally liberal, and conservative government workers self-select themselves into more conservative agencies such as Department of Defense and Small Business Administration.

For the study, the researchers grouped federal agencies into liberal, moderate and conservative categories based upon surveys of journalists, academics and think tank members.

“We then identified where there were mismatches, cases where an agency was liberal but a president was a Republican or cases where an agency was conservative and a president was a Democrat,” Lewis says.

“Turnover was higher at all levels in the mismatch agencies when compared to the other agencies.”

The average rate of turnover of federal government employees is 6.2 percent per year, but it rises to 6.6 percent in mismatched agencies after an election.

Among the ranks of the elite Senior Executive Service (SES), the 7,000 highest level federal government managers, the turnover rate rises from 8 to 8.6 percent overall and 10.2 percent in ideological mismatch agencies. That means 100 more of the most experienced managers will leave government service in the mismatch agencies on top of higher departures overall. Over the next three years, an additional 300 senior executives will likely leave those federal agencies, Lewis says.

SES employees are usually lifetime government workers with substantial policy and management experience. They are largely responsible for keeping federal agencies running during a change in administration when the political positions are vacant.

[lquote]“Good public policy depends upon input from the new administration and the expertise of career professionals.[/lquote] If we lose too many career officials like the director of counterintelligence in Homeland Security or the administrator for emergency response in FEMA, that can be problematic,” Lewis says. “Even in liberal agencies, the president needs experienced career professionals to carry out his directives for them to be implemented successfully.”