For most of us, the big decision of 2016 (i.e. who to vote for) is finally over, but for many retirement-eligible senior executives and employees in the federal government, there’s another question that looms: Whether to retire.
During the prior three fiscal years in which a presidential election took place, the number of federal retirements increased on average by 10 percent from the prior fiscal year according to Office of Personnel Management data. With 85 percent of senior executives in the government eligible to retire today, the leadership ranks risk an exodus of talented civil servants who may choose to retire rather than take on their first administration change in eight years.
Succession planning is never easy, but it’s made more complicated during a presidential transition when career civil servants take on the lion’s share of responsibility — administering programs, obligating funding, making policy decisions, and keeping the machine running — as political appointees step aside. These executives have decades of institutional knowledge and play a critical, and sometimes overlooked role, in ensuring the continuity of operations while new Schedule C appointees are hired and trained.
Ideally, an agency would have an overall transition strategy that prepares it for leadership succession, but even if they do, federal employees are not obligated to inform their agency of their retirement plans, and in some cases, agencies will not know until the day the employee submits his or her retirement application.
In an election year, this may come shortly after votes are tallied or when the new president is sworn in. January is already OPM’s busiest month — data shows nearly 20 percent of all retirement applications submitted last year came in January, which may make some people nervous as to what January 2017 could look like in terms of retirement activity.
What tools are at the government’s disposal to better manage change? Phased retirement is one.
Agencies could be looking at this currently underutilized tool to support their overall workforce and succession planning during this period of uncertainty and transition.
OPM introduced the phased retirement option through rulemaking in 2013, allowing agencies to strategically and proactively manage their workforce by enabling individuals to “phase” into retirement in a part-time working arrangement while also drawing retirement benefits. This tool allows agencies and individuals to mutually coordinate retirement planning by agreeing to a date one or two years down the road for full retirement.
However, recent news reports show that only 90 people are currently participating across the government, though the U.S. Department of Defense’s announcement of its Policy for Civilian Employee Phased Retirement Program may boost enrollees. Federal agencies can view phased retirement not just as an opportunity to transfer knowledge but also as an important tool in managing their most valuable asset: the workforce.
So how can federal agencies not only get phased retirement programs stood-up, but actually start to increase adoption in a way that supports the retiring employee, enables knowledge transfer, and equips agencies to better understand current and future workforce needs?
Workforce shaping — Agencies considering phased retirement or other workforce shaping tools need to determine which critical workforce skills and knowledge retention strategies will help them optimize a balance of resources, knowledge, and funding to achieve an agency’s mission.
Financial and retirement processing impact — Phased retirement’s impact on agencies’ bottom lines is affected by a number of variables including which positions are targeted, their career ladder, and how or if those positions are replaced. Agencies may find cost savings or determine that the benefit provided to the employees (through enhanced flexibility) or to the public (through continuity of operations) is worth the cost of implementing.
Career development and mentoring — The statutorily mandated, mentoring requirement of phased retirement provides a broader opportunity for agencies to develop, or at least revisit, their knowledge management systems and tools. Agencies should identify future leaders for development and provide phased retirees with training to be effective mentors.
Strategic change management and communications — For nearly a century, federal employees and many of their private sector counterparts have had the same model: Work 40 hours a week for decades and then, one day, retire and stop working completely. Encouraging employees to consider a new paradigm for working and retiring requires unique messaging.
Program management and measurement — Federal HR offices are overwhelmed with the existing workload, and an additional retirement option may mean more work for HR, financial and management staff. Phased retirement programs must be designed to fit into the existing structure that an agency uses to manage personnel and to plan for transitions.
Even in non-presidential election years, phased retirement allows agencies to proactively structure their organizations to reflect the skills and positions needed to carry out their ever-evolving missions. Without it, agencies can only react to a workforce that has total control over when and even if to retire. Phased retirement protects those rights for employees, but it also creates mutually beneficial incentives for employees and agencies to voluntary plan for the future.
Imagine a federal environment in which phased retirement is the expected final career step for senior executives and federal employees and the difference it might make. It could create a culture of formal succession planning and baton passing that could be truly transformational for federal agencies and make these big and complicated events — like a presidential election — a bit smoother for everyone.
Sean Morris is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP, and a federal human capital leader, and Angela Watts is a managing director with Deloitte Consulting LLP, and a federal workforce analytics leader.