Amtower: Migrating feds

Is government seeing the start of a mass exodus?

This summer's hit cult movie was "March of the Penguins," a documentary about Antarctic emperor penguins that trek across the frozen tundra each year. But there is also a regular migration of senior federal managers among various federal jobs and public- and private-sector positions. Historically, about 15 percent of senior federal managers migrate each year, typically switching agencies to enhance their careers. This is the career public employee's equivalent of private-sector job-hopping.

Migration in a post-presidential election year is usually much higher. I have seen it spike higher than 40 percent twice — both times in the 1980s. Though I have not followed the migration as closely this year, I believe we are well into the 20 percent zone.

This year, when you consider the additional influences at play, we may see the beginning of an exodus that could lead to difficult times for agencies. It could make the task of carrying out agencies' missions harder.

An often intentionally unmentioned reason for post-election migration is the influx of about 7,000 presidential appointees, many of whom have absolutely no knowledge of an agency's mission.

They are thrust into management positions where they influence policies' interpretation and implementation. Appointees are often a major reason for the migration of those with valuable institutional knowledge.

Besides elections, there are other incentives for migration such as the increase in movement to the private sector by key senior managers; the aging of Senior Executive Service members, many of whom are eligible for retirement; the overall aging of the federal workforce; the reduced percentage of younger federal workers; the Bush administration's efforts at changing the rules of federal employment; and continued outsourcing efforts.

In recent years, we have seen many high-profile managers leave government for the private sector, where they can maximize their earning potential before retiring. I certainly do not blame anyone for doing this, but the government should make a serious effort to retain key people by paying them more.

I hope there is a serious effort to fill this pipeline, but I have seen little evidence of it. Add the lack of job stability stemming from the Bush administration's federal employment policies, and we appear to be headed for a crisis.

If those factors lead to a massive migration, too few experienced federal managers will be in place to maintain current and future programs. Instead, outsiders with minimal grasp of agency missions or federal management and acquisition processes will readily fill those positions.

If federal employment regulations are going to change, the pay scales must be much more attractive. I see little effort to make the wages commensurate with the private sector.

I am not suggesting that I have answers to this, but it is a serious problem that requires an ongoing discussion.

Amtower is senior partner at Amtower & Co. He can be reached at [email protected].


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