Uncle Sam can be a good boss in many ways, but his board of directors, a.k.a. Congress, and his chief executive, a.k.a. the president, can make life difficult for his staff, particularly those at the top of the civil service.
A recently released Office of Personnel Management survey shows that work environment issues are “the highest contributing factors” in the decision of federal senior executives to leave government. At the top of that list is the political environment, followed by the closely related organizational culture and senior leadership. The senior leadership, dominated by political appointees, strongly influences the culture.
Members of the Senior Executive Service (SES), whose members administer major federal programs, work closely with political appointees who provide policy direction. While the survey was done when Barack Obama was president, indications are that the political environment has become particularly toxic since President Trump took office.
The survey is called the 2017 SES Exit Report, but it covers a period that ended a year earlier. It shows that the work environment “contributed the most to executives’ decisions” to quit.
“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the hyper partisan political environment that has engulfed Washington for the past decade is a deciding factor for nonpartisan career leaders when leaving public service,” Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, said by email. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid being swept up into disputes between Congress, the Administration and the political parties as a career leader. This is a problem that has been building for long time and doesn’t show any signs of improving soon.”
Actually, it’s getting worse, particularly in agencies dealing with the environment.
Consider these developments since Trump became president.
- The Union of Concerned Scientists said his administration is “creating a hostile environment for federal agency scientists.”
- Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland, a decorated senior executive, retired from the Environmental Protection Agency, saying “the administration is seriously weakening EPA’s mission by vigorously pursuing an industry deregulation approach and defunding implementation of environmental programs.”
- Joel Clement, an Interior Department senior executive, said he was reassigned “for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities.”
- Mike Cox quit the EPA after 25 years, saying Trump administration policies “are contrary to what the majority of the American people, who pay our salaries, want EPA to accomplish.”
Both Republicans and Democrats have made things difficult for federal employees. “Look no further than Washington’s repeated failures to meet funding deadlines, creating havoc for agency operations,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service. He cited “long delays in confirming political appointees, resulting in a significant leadership vacuum; and a failure to renew or revise programs and policies, leaving agencies in limbo and unable to create new initiatives or halt those that are ineffective.”
Not having a full complement of political appointees is a problem because they set policy. Having political appointees also can be a problem when they micromanage staffers. Under Trump, that’s “a hundred times worse than under Obama,” said Southerland.
Under Obama, the political appointees micromanaged how the agency completed its mission, she said. The difference with Trump appointees, she said, is they are “opposed to what the agency does. … We never had political appointees who are so openly opposed to the agency mission. … They don’t hide it at all.”
Case in point: The deteriorating political environment was demonstrated by a memo written by Ryan Jackson, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s chief of staff. According to the New York Times, Jackson’s email to another political appointee said “I think I did scare” career staffers about the preparation of documents explaining an agency position rejecting scientific advice regarding a pesticide.
Trump’s rhetoric also has damaged the political environment for senior executives and federal employees generally.
“Republican administrations have excoriated government as ‘the problem’ or ‘the swamp’” said Teresa W. Gerton, president and chief executive of the National Academy of Public Administration. “Even though career SESs understand their role as nonpartisan professionals, nobody likes to be called a swamp denizen or have their mission denigrated in public. That’s deadly for morale, and people with options, especially retirement options, may decide that the mission they love is not worth the emotional toll such rhetoric can take.
“I think the results of this year’s survey will be especially enlightening on this aspect,” added Gerton, a former senior executive. “The high volume and persistence of political appointee vacancies post-election, and the turmoil imposed by President Trump’s guidance to dramatically shrink and reorganize government, have placed extraordinary stress on the career SES force. Those who stayed into the new administration have found themselves holding down two or three or more jobs for an extended period of time in a very stressful political environment.”
The difference between the senior executives’ work environment under Obama and Trump is like “comparing sibling rivalry and civil war,” said Clement. The three-year partial pay freeze and congressional sniping were problems during the Obama years, he added, but “it’s way worse now.”
“This,” Clement said about the Trump administration, “is tough.”