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Study: New Administrations Spark Mass Departures Of Civil Servants


The federal government employs almost 3 million people. Donald Trump will appoint only about 1 percent of those. So when we imagine what the government will look like in a new administration, it's important to figure out whether career civil servants will stay or go.

John de Figueiredo has been studying this question. He's a professor at Duke University. And he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JOHN DE FIGUEIREDO: Thank you very much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So do civil servants stay or leave when a new president comes in?

DE FIGUEIREDO: It turns out there's a much higher percentage of civil servants who will leave, especially at the senior executive service level. The senior executive service is comprised of the top 7,000 people in the civil service. In the year after elections, they have high departure rates. But the departure rates are even higher when the mission of the agency is at odds with the incoming political administration.

For example, if a Republican administration is emphasizing defense and not housing, there will be a really high number of senior executive service or SES departures from the housing and urban development and those in the Department of Defense more likely to stay.

SHAPIRO: How high numbers are we talking about?

DE FIGUEIREDO: Well, so we're talking in the - hundreds of people will end up leaving the senior executive service. But again, that's a lot when you think that there's only about 7,000 people in that bracket of the government.

SHAPIRO: When you talk about the senior executive service, what kinds of jobs are we talking about here?

DE FIGUEIREDO: I'll give you three examples - the director of counterintelligence at the Department of Homeland Security, the director of drinking and groundwater at the EPA and the assistant administrators for response and recovery at FEMA. These are people who you really want to make sure they understand their jobs and have lots of technical and deep expertise in these areas.

SHAPIRO: It's funny. When you say those titles, I would've just assumed that those were political appointees who would turn over with every administration.

DE FIGUEIREDO: No, (laughter) they're not. The huge number of the senior executive service are civil servants with 25, 30 years' experience who've been studying counterintelligence, drinking water and disaster recovery their entire lives.

SHAPIRO: So if we look, for example, at the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, Donald Trump has nominated a leader for the EPA who has questioned climate science - seems safe to assume that many EPA employees believe in man-made climate change. Would we then expect that a number of those senior-level civil servants would leave?

DE FIGUEIREDO: That's exactly what our paper would predict - is that the environment is not a policy priority for this incoming administration. Economic development is. Jobs creation is. The people who work at the EPA tend to be concerned about the environment. They tend to be concerned about groundwater. They tend to be concerned about drinking water, climate change, a whole set of issues related to the environment.

And these are exactly the people who've spent years in the EPA studying these kinds of environmental issues with deep technical and scientific knowledge. And these people are also - in the senior executive service - they're the highest performers. So you lose both high performers, and you lose deep expertise.

SHAPIRO: I could imagine - sticking with this example - environmental advocates saying those are exactly the people who should stay and fight against the shift in agenda. But your data shows that's just not what they've done historically.

DE FIGUEIREDO: Well, you can imagine. If you are an employee at any organization and you've spent your life building expertise and you're being told now we already have different policy priorities, and we're going to do things differently, that your opinion and expertise is not as valued. And you can find outside employment most likely at a higher wage in the private sector. And these are the types of people who will end up departing.

SHAPIRO: What is the effect of losing so many people who have so much institutional knowledge?

DE FIGUEIREDO: If you think about government policy, government policies are basically a bundle of political priorities that are brought by new politicians and facts and technical expertise brought by civil servants. If we bring only political priorities and no expertise, then we end up getting policies which are not based in facts. If we bring only technical expertise, then we get policies which are not responsive to the electorate. So you need both.

SHAPIRO: That's John de Figueiredo of Duke University. Thanks very much for your time.


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