You’ve probably seen the headlines, but federal relocations and reassignments have gotten a bit of a bad rap in recent years.
Theoretically, they’re supposed to move in-demand skills to places that need them most, give federal employees and executives new professional experiences and maybe, just maybe, save the government a few dollars in the process.
The federal government moves more than 29,000 employees each year, to the tune of $1.3 billion annually, according to data from the General Services Administration.
The military moves its active duty members around all the time, but for civilian employees, relocations and reassignments — at least in some corners of government — have scored some bad headlines.
The Interior Department moved a few dozen of its senior executives to new positions and, for some, to new geographic locations, back in 2017. It didn’t go particularly well.
Senior executives at the time told us they weren’t involved in the decision-making process, and they didn’t understand the rationale for the moves. Turns out the department’s inspector general didn’t understand the rationale either.
And while Interior likely followed the rules governing SES reassignments — agencies must give executives a certain amount of advanced notice and can’t move employees within the first 120 days of a new leader’s tenure — the relocations demoralized Interior’s career executives.
Most Interior executives ended up making the move or job transfer; after all, they are mandatory. A few resigned. A few retired or had their reassignments rescinded.
Senior executives generally expect the possibility of a reassignment or relocation; it’s part of the job description when they sign up to become a member of the SES. Theoretically, these moves are supposed to be integrated in an executive’s professional development plan.
The situation was quite different for employees at two of the Agriculture Department’s research bureaus and Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.
USDA billed its 2019 relocation of employees at the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture as a cost-saving measure — and a way to move staff and resources closer to the customers they serve.
The department acknowledged it would likely experience some attrition but said the relocation gave USDA an opportunity to recruit new talent in the local Kansas City region.
About 40-to-60% of ERS and NIFA employees left their agencies, and the department is still struggling to fill those vacancies.
Something similar happened at the Bureau of Land Management a year or so later, when Interior announced plans to move the BLM headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado.
More than 80% of employees impacted by the BLM relocation didn’t move, the Interior Department has said. New political leaders at the department say they’re reviewing the BLM relocation.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Some employees involved in the three relocations I described above will say they were an attempt to send a message about their agencies and the value of their work — or a desire to move federal bureaucrats out of the “swamp.”
The Interior, USDA and BLM examples are perhaps special cases. Most relocations don’t fire up members of Congress or make headlines. Plenty of executives have found value in them.
Still, it’s not too surprising that a recent survey from BGRS, a talent mobility company, and the Senior Executives Association found relocations often fail to meet the goals they’re theoretically designed to achieve.
BGRS and SEA surveyed and interviewed agency executives and hiring officials from the U.S. and Canadian governments about their relocation practices.
According to their research, 54% of U.S. federal executives said relocations were not effective at retaining newly hired talent, while 51% said they were not effective at attracting new talent.
About 52% of federal executives saw relocations as a very or moderately effective skills development tool, while 54% said they were an effective succession planning tool for senior talent.
Researchers found that the U.S. government often struggles to tie relocations to talent management and professional development, and agencies rarely map these moves to succession and workforce plans.
Yes, the private sector uses relocations to move certain skills to places where they’re needed most, but it also uses them as a tool to intentionally help talent develop desired skills and competencies, researchers said.
About 54% of agency executives said relocations achieved cost savings very or moderately well, but one-third disagreed.
One executive told researchers failed relocations are “cleaned up but never learned from.”
And just 19% of U.S. executives say they’re confident their agencies have the data and tools necessary to track how much these relocations actually cost — and whether they’re actually achieving any perceived savings by moving around employees.
So, what’s the point here?
Well, these aren’t exactly stellar marks for a relocation program that costs the federal government more than a billion dollars a year.
Sure, senior executives know that mandatory reassignments and relocations are part of the job. But if a cross-country move is involved, you want the experience to be worth the time, money and stress that it imposes on you, your family and your agency, right?
And as we’ve seen recently, the relocation experience itself can drive employees out the door.
Then there’s the prospect of what comes next. The pandemic forced a reckoning among most in government about telework and remote work, and agencies are redesigning their policies to be more flexible.
If work is about what you do (not where you do it), are federal relocations dead? Why move around executives to new duty stations if they can take on a new assignment from their couch?
Researchers with BGRS and the Senior Executives Association say not so fast. They say agencies have a broader opportunity to reimagine where and how employees work — and that includes how they think about professional development and relocations.
If you’ve been through a relocation or reassignment, how was the experience? Was it worth the trouble, or more trouble than it’s worth?
Almost every movie ends with the disclaimer that “This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.” That’s because in 1933, exiled Russian Prince Felix Yusupov, the man who killed Rasputin, sued MGM for libel over the movie “Rasputin and the Empress.” Yusupov argued that the characters in the film, though the names were changed, were easily identifiable as himself and his wife.