Just in time for Public Service Recognition Week, a new government report suggests that a little more recognition could go a long way toward preventing top-level federal employees from leaving public service.
Seventy percent of federal senior executives who left their positions said in response to an exit survey that no effort had been made to encourage them to stay. However, 37 percent said an increase in pay might have changed their minds, 24 percent said a performance-based or other award would have helped, and 20 percent said the same of a retention incentive payment.
Even no-cost steps such as “verbal encouragement to stay based on your value to the organization” would have encouraged a quarter, as would have “greater engagement from senior leadership.” Better work-life balance and increased autonomy in decision-making were cited by nearly as many.
Twenty-eight percent, though, agreed that “nothing would have encouraged me to stay.”
The report was based on responses by 221 senior executives who left their positions between April 2013 and July 2014. Government-wide, there are about 8,000 senior executives, who serve as the intermediary between policy-making appointees and middle-level federal employees responsible for carrying out policies. About nine-tenths of them are career employees, representing the highest level a career employee typically can reach; the rest are political or short-term appointees.
“The information in the report will be used to support agency and Governmentwide recruitment, engagement, retention, and succession planning efforts for current and future executives,” Katherine Archuleta, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said in a memo to agencies releasing the report. “With many SES eligible for retirement in the near future, it is imperative for agencies to understand what they can do to engage and retain executives, while mitigating factors that cause executives to leave the Federal Government.”
“It gives me no pleasure to say I’m not surprised” by the report, said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association. “I think there are a couple of factors that go into agencies influencing whether executives will stay. Pay isn’t the hugest issue, but it can be a demotivator.”
She said that agencies have authority to increase pay and provide awards and retention payments but that “there is a clear failure to recognize achievement. It’s a morale boost to executives, and it also can influence potential candidates when they see the administration and their agency value their contribution.”
“Verbal encouragement — to think that not even that is done is rather astonishing,” she added, speaking in a telephone interview. “This business of I’m not even going to tell you that we value and need you, it boggles the mind.”
Two-thirds of SES members who left their agencies in that period resigned or retired voluntarily, while most of the rest left to join another agency. Just 3 percent said they were asked or encouraged to leave.
The findings suggest that many who left were not tired of working in general, just tired of their jobs. Only 27 percent said they do not expect to work for pay after leaving, with 24 percent undecided. Of those planning to continue working, 60 percent said they expected an increase in pay.
SES members are among the highest-paid federal employees, paid within a range of about $122,000 to $183,000. They are eligible for various types of performance-based raises and awards.
The Government Accountability Office reported in January that in 2013, 45.3 percent of executives across government were rated at the top level of their five-level ranking system and 44.1 percent were rated at a level down. Less than one-half of 1 percent were rated at the bottom two levels combined.
The ratings pattern remained about the same over 2010-2013, GAO added, but because of budget constraints, the percentage of executives who received performance awards annually fell from about 79 percent to 58 percent in that time, and the average amount fell from about $13,800 to $10,600.
In the survey, the most commonly cited reason for leaving was the “political environment,” with 60 percent saying it affected their decision at least to a moderate extent. Senior leadership, organizational culture, lack of recognition for accomplishments and relationships with supervisors also were top factors.
The SES has been criticized in recent years for the roles some of its members played in scandals at agencies such as the General Services Administration, the IRS and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Last year a law was enacted making it easier to take disciplinary actions against SES members at the VA, and proposals have been raised to impose further restrictions on the SES there — proposals widely seen as a potential precedent for government-wide changes.
Last week the House passed by voice vote an amendment to a spending bill barring the payment of awards to SES members at the VA in fiscal 2016.