Weekly Insight

Fast Changing Tide—N.C. Cabinet Agency Turnover  

What if Roy Williams took the court without any of his assistant coaches on the bench? How would that handicap success in the ACC tournament? Assistant coaches, while clearly less crucial to game day success than the head coach, play important roles in the process. They are additional sets of eyes and ears; they focus on aspects of the game that the head coach cannot focus on; and they often have subtle but specific responsibilities to track certain things like timeouts or player fouls—elements that can make a difference in the game.

Spring is two weeks away; the General Assembly is six weeks into its session; and North Carolina has one cabinet secretary. While this is not a “sky is falling” sort of moment, it has the potential to significantly affect government operations. It is akin to the other Roy coaching a big game without his full staff on the bench.

High agency turnover

Unfortunately for Governor Cooper, the appointment delays follow a period of frequent turnover in the leadership of cabinet level agencies. In the last decade, North Carolina has been led by four different Governors. During that time, those Governors have appointed seven Revenue secretaries and six secretaries of Health and Human Services.

Leadership Turnover in 8 Cabinet Agencies – 2007-2017

Cabinet Agency

# of Secretaries





Environmental Quality


Health and Human Services


Natural and Cultural Resources


Public Safety







At first glance, the turnover is not particularly unusual.  North Carolina used to have a one-term Governor as other states like Virginia still do. Gubernatorial term limits and a four-year election cycle are both intentional policy decisions that can lead to higher executive turnover. Furthermore, the turnover at the top creates some natural churning at the agency leadership levels where appointees are often among the most qualified for other, more lucrative types of work.

Yet while the high turnover rate is not surprising, it has left the state with a challenging leadership trajectory. Most noticeably, it affects agencies’ ability to think long-range and to design strategic policy solutions.

Strategic planning norms vary, but by their nature strategic plans are meant address systemic issues and last multiple years. What type of strategic planning can we expect when the leadership of an organization shifts so frequently?

Take an issue like Medicaid administration, which is one of the largest items in the state budget. Administering Medicaid is already difficult due to the involvement of the federal bureaucracy and the regular intervention from federal and state legislative processes. Add to that complexity a change in administrative leadership every two years or so. It is no wonder that Medicaid administration has been one of the state’s great policy challenges over the last decade.

If cabinet agencies were private businesses, that kind of leadership turnover would be problematic.  Shareholders and business analysts would start to question the ability to maintain focus and wonder whether leadership inconsistency was inhibiting performance. If they were a college basketball team, alumni would begin to worry about team’s ability to recruit and sustain a consistent program.

Retirements and Appointments

Making matters worse, North Carolina is in the midst of the “silver tsunami,” a retirement wave brought on by the aging baby boomers. Throughout these senior leadership transitions, the agencies have been kept afloat by non-appointed, senior and mid-level managers. However, across the board many of these managers have begun to retire. 

Added to the high cabinet turnover rate and the uptick in retirements, the inability to name new cabinet secretaries will increase the executive branch leadership challenges. 

Without clear leadership in place, deputy and assistant secretary level positions, as well as other appointed positions like legislative liaisons, cannot be filled as quickly. Operational and strategic priorities cannot be fully established. The pile of human resource issues, retirement recognitions, and constituent concerns that have been building since November cannot be addressed.

Furthermore, as Governor Cooper works with the General Assembly on his budget priorities and to make the case for different agency requests, he must do so with interim leaders representing his position. Regardless of how skilled and experienced these interim leaders are—and by their resumes, they are experienced public leaders—that interim designation has an impact on how those leaders are viewed and on their ultimate accountability.

Over the last couple of months, attention has focused on the dramatic tussle between the Governor and the Senate over the important constitutional question around agency confirmation. The longer lasting challenge, however, will be getting the new secretaries up and running in agencies that have seen significant leadership changes over the last decade.

AHH headshot-2016

Andrew Holton is a board member and contributor to the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

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