Senior Executives Are Increasingly Leaving the Government

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The federal government’s senior executives are leaving the civil service, creating the possibility for a shortage of qualified top managers. By Eric Katz

The federal government’s senior executives are leaving the civil service at a rapidly increasing rate, according to a new report, creating the possibility for a significant shortage of qualified top managers.

Graduate students at The George Washington University, in conjunction with the Senior Executives Association, found through analysis of data from the Office of Personnel Management a 36 percent increase in departures from Senior Executive Service employees since 2009. Separations for the rest of the federal workforce have decreased somewhat in the same period.

In fiscal 2009, senior executives left government a much lower rate than the rest of the workforce; 7 percent of SESers separated that year, compared to 10 percent of employees governmentwide. That gap has shrunk each of the last four years, according to the report, and in fiscal 2013 the separation rates were even.

The largest driver of senior executives out of government has been age. Nearly 80 percent of departing SES employees since 2009 were voluntary, non-early retirees. One in five, however, left through early retirement or resignation. Senior executives told researchers the financial crisis, pay compression, award suspension and sequestration were major factors that drove the supervisors out of federal service.

A recent Government Executive analysis found very few senior executives are forced out. Just 8 hundredths of 1 percent of SESers were fired for discipline or performance in fiscal 2013.

However, as more senior executives leave on their own volition — and as an even greater number gear up for retirement thanks to the aging baby-boomer generation — researchers said agencies must do more to prepare a new cadre of leaders and retain old ones.

Retention efforts should include internal agency incentives for baby boomers to continue working one to five years past their personally optimal retirement date, such as souvenirs and time off awards, the report said. Agencies should also lobby for locality pay for SES employees, the researchers suggested.  General Schedule workers receive pay adjustments based on the cost of living in their regions, while senior executives do not.

SEA and the graduate students acknowledged financial boosts for senior executives could prove a hard sell.

“Increasing pay to SES members may be difficult due to current political pressures and budget limitations,” the researchers wrote. “However, non-monetary acknowledgments of SES efforts and successes are low-cost ways to improve satisfaction and morale with the service.”

Researchers also suggested many GS-15s are not interested in becoming SES employees, as they felt the increased pay does not match the increased workload. Agencies should do a better job of incentivizing those employees, according to the report. A greater focus on training programs could also boost GS-15s’ interest in joining the SES.

Ultimately, extending the tenure of retirement-eligible managers while mentoring and training new talent will reduce “the chance that productivity will drastically decrease during the transition period between senior executives,” SEA and the students wrote. 

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