Skip to main content
Menu
5 Questions To Ask Every Time Someone Leaves The Trump Administration

The White House lost three officials in the span of seven days, and there are mounting calls for chief of staff John Kelly to step down amid criticism of his handling of abuse allegations against one of the aides. This kind of turmoil has long roiled the Trump’s administration: The president lost three Cabinet heads in the first year of his term — far more Cabinet turnover than in any other recent president’s first year — and saw an exodus of senior advisers that also outpaced his recent predecessors.

But will the rapid pace of departures harm the Trump administration in the long term? After all, turnover is baked directly into our system of government: Each president is responsible for naming about 4,000 political appointees, many of whom leave within three years of taking the job. It’s possible, as we noted last year, that while frequent turnover might seem like it would breed chaos, it could also be a sign of learning or adapting.

To get a sense for the possible ramifications of a particular departure, here are five questions to ask every time a high-level official resigns or is fired, based on the research on leadership shake-ups within the corporate world and the public sector.

1. How long was this person on the job?

Turnover is unavoidable within the federal bureaucracy, and that’s not always a bad thing. In fact, political scientists agree that some changes in leadership are necessary for a functioning democracy.

Frequent turnover, though, can create a number of problems, which is why it’s important to take a look at how long a departing leader has been in his or her position. Shorter tenures and repeated transitions of power are connected1 to more disruption overall, according to Margarethe Wiersema, a professor of strategic management at the University of California, Irvine who studies CEO turnover and succession. She said that although the corporate world is different from the public sector, many lessons from research about CEO departures are broadly applicable to an “organization” like the Trump administration.

“It takes awhile for any leader to settle in,” Wiersema said. “Organizations are driven by their leaders’ goals and vision, and it creates a lot of institutional inefficiency and confusion if that leader leaves just as they’re getting a sense for how things work. It means everything starts all over again with the new person.”

A pattern of shorter tenures may also encourage workers in federal agencies to assume that long-term projects won’t go forward, according to David Lewis, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. One of his studies, on the difference between political appointees and career civil servants, found that the shorter stays and lack of relative experience of appointees contributed to the relatively worse track record of the programs they ran, while another study of the Department of Defense concluded that longer tenures were related to better program performance.

Lewis said these outcomes are related to the confusion caused by short tenures, which in turn affects federal agencies’ ability to produce effective policy. “When there’s a lot of volatility in leadership, civil servants become unwilling to do anything new or innovative because they think the person in charge is on the way out the door,” he explained.

2. Was the departure planned?

One of the reasons that predictable government turnover isn’t typically more disruptive is that the workforce tends to know what to expect, according to Anne Joseph O’Connell, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Berkeley who studies political appointees and the federal bureaucracy.

“Federal employees are used to leadership leaving on a certain timeline, generally every two to four years, and that’s expected and planned for,” O’Connell said. Agency heads and Cabinet secretaries sometimes return to former jobs in the private sector or academia after a set period of time; there’s also frequently a changing of the guard after four years even if a president is re-elected. For example, Barack Obama and George W. Bush both used the first year of their second term to install more than a dozen new Cabinet heads each.

Controversy-ridden departures, on the other hand, are difficult to plan for and may create a sense that any leader could be the next to go, O’Connell warned. That creates day-to-day uncertainty for employees and can produce a broader public impression that the administration is incompetent or unfocused.

3. Is there a clear reason for the departure?

Sometimes, senior leaders in the private sector are fired as a signal that an organization is responding to an internal problem, regardless of whether that problem is related to the departing leader. It’s easier to justify the firing of someone who is underperforming or embroiled in scandal, experts said, than the dismissal of well-respected leaders when the reasons for their firing aren’t obvious.

One study from the corporate world found that markets are likelier to respond positively to new leaders when prior performance is poor and negatively when prior performance is good. Other research concluded that turnover is more likely to be viewed by employees as an adaptive event — rather than something turbulent — when the organization’s strategy has shifted away from the outgoing leader’s vision.

Ousting a high-profile official can, in some cases, make a president appear that he’s taking a problem seriously, as when Bush announced the departure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was associated with the unpopular Iraq War, just after Democrats’ sweeping victories in the 2006 midterms.

But Wiersema said that firing a senior leader won’t always be enough if the organization’s first response was denial or defensiveness. “The point isn’t to put a head on the chopping block,” she said. “It’s to signal that the organization is acknowledging a problem and responding to it.”

4. How senior is the person who’s leaving?

One important factor presidents often forget is that “organizations depend on teams, not just leaders,” according to Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that works on effective government strategies. And when the most senior officials leave, like a Cabinet secretary or high-level aide, there’s a “cascading” effect as their hand-picked team members depart with them.

A similar phenomenon exists in the corporate world: Some studies have shown that when CEOs are forced out, a significant number of executives tend to leave with them, which can create serious setbacks for long-term projects. The departure of entire groups of people, rather than just a single leader, creates similar problems in the public sector, Stier said.

O’Connell said that one piece of good news for Trump is that by leaving many political appointments unfilled, he may be blunting the impact of replacing all of the senior leadership staff who leave when a high-level official resigns or is fired. That may create other problems with productivity but results in less upheaval when there’s a change of leadership.

5. How easily can this person be replaced?

In some cases, leadership turnover happens because the president realizes there’s a better person out there. Research by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies the executive branch, found that turnover in a president’s first year is sometimes a sign that he’s turning away from campaign aides and toward advisers with more experience in governance.

But some senior leaders are more difficult to replace than others, according to Tenpas. It’s less challenging to find successors to Cabinet secretaries, she said, because a personal relationship with the president isn’t a requirement for their job. White House aides, on the other hand, don’t only need specialized skills for their position — they need to have a rapport with the chief executive. This is especially true for high-level positions within the White House like the chief of staff: “Finding someone who works well with the president on a day-to-day basis can be really, really difficult,” she said. “It’s also disruptive for the president personally when someone in one of those close roles leaves.”

In some cases, Trump has chosen simply not to replace a departing official, or he’s assigned someone already within the administration to take over a newly vacated job. For example, when Richard Cordray stepped down as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in November, Mick Mulvaney was appointed as acting director — despite the fact that he was already in charge of the White House budget office.

Tenpas predicted that this move could damage the morale of CFPB workers and reduce efficiency within the organization since Mulvaney’s attentions are divided. This is likely a strategic choice, since the CFPB is an Obama-era agency that the Trump administration appears to be stripping of its enforcement powers. But absent that, assigning two leadership positions to one person is generally not a recipe for a healthy organization, Tenpas warned.


Predicting what will happen in the second year of Trump’s presidency is a plainly futile mission. But the experts on turnover — regardless of whether they study the private or public sector — expressed concern about the effects of allowing the executive branch’s revolving door to continue to spin quickly. Some said they were worried about the impact of leadership turbulence and widespread vacancies on the federal workforce, while others said they were concerned about the growing public perception that the administration is in disarray.

“There’s unconventional, and then there’s unprofessional,” Tenpas said. “It’s still early in (Trump’s) presidency, of course, but it’s a problem if it looks like the executive branch is in chaos.”

Footnotes

  1. The primary evidence for the claim that frequent turnover is damaging to an organization comes from a 1963 study conducted by sociologist Oscar Grusky. Professor Margarethe Wiersema said this remains the “seminal” study on this topic.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a writer and reporter living in Chicago.

Andrea Jones-Rooy is FiveThirtyEight’s quantitative researcher.

Comments