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Elections, Ideology, and Turnover in the U.S. Federal Government


  • Alexander Bolton
  • John M. de Figueiredo
  • David E. Lewis


A defining feature of public sector employment is the regular change in elected leadership. Yet, we know little about how elections influence careers. We describe how elections can alter policy outputs and disrupt civil servants’ influence over agency decisions, potentially shaping their career choices. We use new data on federal career records between 1988 and 2011 to evaluate how elections influence turnover decisions. We find large levels of stability in the civil service but also pockets of employees that are responsive to presidential transitions. Senior career employees in agencies with views divergent from the president’s appear most affected. In the first three years of an administration, political factors such as elections, policy priorities, and political ideological differences, are estimated to increase turnover in the senior civil service by 30.9% in some agencies. We also find suggestive evidence that vacancies in high-level positions after elections may induce lower-level executives to stay longer in hopes of advancing.

Suggested Citation

  • Alexander Bolton & John M. de Figueiredo & David E. Lewis, 2016. "Elections, Ideology, and Turnover in the U.S. Federal Government," NBER Working Papers 22932, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:22932
    Note: LE LS PE

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Jowei Chen & Tim Johnson, 2015. "Federal employee unionization and presidential control of the bureaucracy: Estimating and explaining ideological change in executive agencies," Journal of Theoretical Politics, , vol. 27(1), pages 151-174, January.
    2. Borjas, George J., 1982. "Labor turnover in the U.S. federal bureaucracy," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 19(2), pages 187-202, November.
    3. Claire Edey Gamassou, 2015. "What Drives Personnel Out of Public Organizations?," Public Organization Review, Springer, vol. 15(3), pages 383-398, September.
    4. Zeynep Ton & Robert S. Huckman, 2008. "Managing the Impact of Employee Turnover on Performance: The Role of Process Conformance," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 19(1), pages 56-68, February.
    5. Mitra Akhtari & Diana Moreira & Laura Trucco, 2016. "Political Turnover, Bureaucratic Turnover, and the Quality of Public Services," Working Paper 468671, Harvard University OpenScholar.
    6. Alexander Bolton & Rachel Augustine Potter & Sharece Thrower, 2016. "Organizational Capacity, Regulatory Review, and the Limits of Political Control," Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, Oxford University Press, vol. 32(2), pages 242-271.
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    Cited by:

    1. Andrés F. Barrientos & Alexander Bolton & Tom Balmat & Jerome P. Reiter & John M. de Figueiredo & Ashwin Machanavajjhala & Yan Chen & Charles Kneifel & Mark DeLong, 2017. "A Framework for Sharing Confidential Research Data, Applied to Investigating Differential Pay by Race in the U. S. Government," NBER Working Papers 23534, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • H11 - Public Economics - - Structure and Scope of Government - - - Structure and Scope of Government
    • H83 - Public Economics - - Miscellaneous Issues - - - Public Administration
    • J45 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Particular Labor Markets - - - Public Sector Labor Markets
    • J63 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Mobility, Unemployment, Vacancies, and Immigrant Workers - - - Turnover; Vacancies; Layoffs
    • K29 - Law and Economics - - Regulation and Business Law - - - Other

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