Editorial: Departing opportunities

In recent weeks, we have seen a parade of announcements about people leaving senior posts — and we continue to hear rumors that more will be making their exits.

For years, we have been talking in Chicken Little terms about the retirement tsunami. Although that talk may have been overblown, the coming months are a critical juncture for many government employees who are sitting on the cusp of retirement. We are used to seeing many political appointees leave their posts in the last year of an administration, but in recent months, we have seen many career employees leave — and we know there are many others who are pondering their futures.

We have seen the departures of people such as Deidre Lee — and heard rumors of many others.

That is perhaps why the situation at the Agriculture Department is worrisome. In recent months, there has been a slew of departures from the offices of USDA’s chief information officer and chief financial officer. USDA’s senior CIO and CFO leadership has been decimated, leaving the agency’s leadership ranks filled with people serving in acting posts.

Charles Christopherson, the USDA CIO/CFO, sent a memo to his staff that suggested the departures were “a great opportunity for all of us.”

Christopherson is partially correct. Often, departures present the opportunity to clear out old, recalcitrant thinking and bring in fresh ideas. But that process must be managed carefully — particularly now with so many career officials at or near retirement.

Add the upcoming presidential election to the layers of change, and all of that makes government workers queasy and anxious.

Some departures are false opportunities. They are not the kinds of opportunities that anybody would find interesting or challenging. And they aren’t challenges that help agencies accomplish their missions more effectively.

We hope that leaders will manage the situation by presenting a clear vision of what they want to accomplish, hiring the best people who can accomplish those tasks, empowering those people, and establishing clear paths of succession.

Career government workers become civil service employees because they believe government does important work and they are ready for challenges, but they also have other options. It is better to have workforce tides rather than a tsunami and to recognize that not all departures are opportunities.

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