People enter the State Department Building in Washington. (Reuters)

Are career civil servants fleeing the Trump administration? That’s been the implication of recent news coverage. Articles in the New York Times have reported on career State Department officials who say they’re leaving because they were not valued, disagreed with President Trump’s policies, or were asked to retire. In The Washington Post, a Department of the Interior scientist wrote that he had been reassigned to an accounting office in retaliation for his work on climate change in the Obama administration.

Given the importance of career civil servants for policy implementation, a mass exodus would be alarming. But such stories mask a more nuanced story about federal employment before and after Trump’s election.

Here are three things to know about the state of the civil service.

This is how we studied the impact of Trump’s election

In a new working paper, David Lewis, Scott Limbocker and I examine whether partisan conflict drove high-level career civil servants from their positions after Trump’s election. We studied approximately 1,000 members of the career Senior Executive Service (SES) who responded to the Survey on the Future of Government Service in late 2014.

The survey, conducted by David Lewis and Mark Richardson, asks civil servants about their partisan and ideological beliefs and their responsibilities and influences.  Members of the SES who took the survey have been in government for an average of 18 years and earn an average salary of $166,000. They form the upper echelon of the civil service, serving just below top-level appointees.

Using personnel data released by the Office of Personnel Management and the Federal Yellow Book, we tracked our respondents’ careers from March 2015 to July 2017, identifying which respondents stayed in their jobs and which left government service.

With these data, we estimate a statistical model to determine factors associated with exit. One key factor included in the model is a respondent’s political beliefs. The model controls other factors that affect departure like retirement eligibility.

1. Bureaucrats on the left and right departed before the 2016 election

The news media have been covering civil servants who left government after Trump’s election. But, our data show, they were more likely to leave in the months before the election. For those “early leavers,” we find no evidence that ideological beliefs had any bearing on their decisions.

The figure below plots the predicted probability of departure by liberals and conservatives before and after the 2016 election, controlling for other factors that affect exit.


Why would so many civil servants leave before the election? Regardless of the election’s outcome, civil servants knew that they were facing a transition and would have to adapt to a new president’s agenda. Typically, appointed agency leaders — department secretaries, for instance – leave with the outgoing president. As a result, transitions serve as a deadline when civil servants of all ideologies assess their options and decide whether to stay in or leave government.

2. Liberals exited after the election

After Trump’s election, liberal civil servants departed from government at higher rates than conservatives. Our statistical model finds that the rate of departure during the Trump administration’s first six months is approximately 4 percent for conservative civil servants. By contrast, liberals departed at a rate of 11 to 12 percent, nearly three times the rate of conservatives.

No doubt, top career officials left in no small part because they either encountered or expected partisan conflict with the president. To effectively control the machinery of public policy, presidents need to control the key positions inside agencies – usually by installing personnel sympathetic to the president’s agenda. When existing civil servants leave voluntarily, new presidents have more opportunity to fill key positions with those who support their policy goals.

3. Trump could reshape the civil service, if he wanted to

Civil servants really are leaving in higher numbers than from past administrations. This gives the Trump administration a greater opportunity to influence the executive branch than other recent presidents have had. Recent research by Alexander Bolton, David Lewis and John de Figueiredo reveals that under the four previous presidents, roughly 9.6 percent of the Senior Executive Service left during the year after a new president took office. But after only six months, the departure rate is nearly 8 percent under Trump.

But will Trump in fact take advantage of this opportunity? In conflict with the spirit of civil service laws, past administrations have actively tried to guide ideologically supportive staff into open positions. For example, Nixon administration officials kept lists of friendly civil servants and would recommend them when positions opened. But to use departures to political advantage, an administration must be prepared. Right now, as has been widely reported, Trump hasn’t yet nominated candidates for many of the executive branch positions that are filled by appointment.

In fact, for many agencies, Trump has shown little interest in filling empty seats. Just recently, when asked about vacancies at the State Department, Trump replied that “I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.” This suggests that the Trump administration may be unlikely to identify and promote ideologically friendly civil servants to newly open positions of power.

Kathleen Doherty is an assistant professor in the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.