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Columnist

The streams of people heading for Uncle Sam’s door are top federal civil servants fleeing the Trump administration.

The exodus of Senior Executive Service (SES) members was nearly 26 percent higher under President Trump in fiscal 2017, which included most of his first year in office, than it was under Barack Obama in fiscal 2009, according to the Partnership for Public Service, which crunched Office of Personnel Management (OPM) data for the Federal Insider.

In fiscal 2017, which began in October 2016, 1,522 senior execs left the government. “That represented 18.6 percent of the SES on board at the beginning of the fiscal year,” according to the Partnership. GovExec.com first reported the increasing departures of SES members.

“It’s a big problem …” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership, which studies the federal workplace. It’s “a lot of talent, a lot of knowledge” leaving.

Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, offered various reasons for the accelerating exits — the arrival of the long-predicted federal “retirement tsunami” of baby boomers, the increased departures that come with every presidential transition and “the intensity of the transition with the Trump administration …. Really, I think it took a toll.”

Valdez referred to Trump’s “drain the swamp” talk, which feds considered a slur; the notion that “the civil service was the problem”; the administration’s hiring freeze; and the involuntary transfers of senior executives.

Combined with other factors, “people just weren't willing to put up with it,” he added. They knew the Trump transition “would be rougher than usual.” The president's rhetoric and actions “just intensified the desire of some SES to leave.”

Valdez urged the administration to follow recommendations to strengthen the Senior Executive Service included in a “joint policy agenda” issued Thursday by his association, the Partnership and the Volcker Alliance. The recommendations included increased succession planning and better development of potential senior executives. By 2022, according to the agenda, 65 percent of the top civil servants will be eligible to retire.

“From strengthening executive onboarding and creating a separate promotional track for individuals with technical expertise to providing more developmental opportunities, investments in senior executives will make government work more effectively,” Stier said. “The right leaders set the tone for the rest of their workforce — motivating their employees, promoting innovation and driving results. Just the opposite happens when leaders are poorly equipped, and the American people pay the price.”

A poorer government will be the price of so many senior leaders leaving.

For Democrats, Trump gets the blame.

Acknowledging that presidential transitions generally lead to increased departures, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said in an email, “The exodus of senior executives from positions in the Trump Administration is more significant as a result of the Administration’s assault on federal workers, their pay, and their rights. In addition, there have been many reports of Administration appointees trying to identify and purge civil servants who are not sufficiently ‘loyal’ to President Trump, arbitrarily reassign senior executives, and gag those who express dissent.”

“The President’s own appointees see him as a danger to the republic and are cutting him out of the decision-making process in order to mitigate the damage done by his mismanagement,” Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said in an email, referring to revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book about the Trump White House. “Are we surprised that talented civil servants who have dedicated their careers to the careful stewardship of the federal mission would have a hard time operating in that environment? Attacks on individual federal employees, proposed cuts to compensation and benefits, and the denigration of civil servants — what about that sounds appealing to you? No CEO would manage a company this way.”

Cummings and Connolly are the top Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and its government operations subcommittee, respectively. Their Republican counterparts, Chairman Trey Gowdy (S.C.) and Mark Meadows (N.C.), did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did OPM.

Stier cited the president’s poor record of filling political appointee vacancies as contributing to the senior executive exit. Of 705 key government positions requiring Senate confirmation, only 357 have been confirmed as of Tuesday morning, almost 20 months into this administration, according to an appointments tracker published by The Washington Post and the Partnership. That’s far behind the pace of all presidents since George H.W. Bush. At this point in Obama’s presidency, 721 appointees were confirmed.

Along with other conditions, Stier said the lack of appointed leaders who deal directly with the senior execs “creates a much more challenging work environment.”

The exodus of Senior Executive Service members “is a major problem for the federal government — and for the citizens of this country,” Cummings added. “The Trump administration’s actions are tearing a gaping hole in agency leadership, driving out career experts, and making our government less efficient and less effective.

“This will lead to a crisis that will affect the American public for years to come.”

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