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Federal Agency Succession Planning (Part 2): The Delphi Method

As I reflect on the bustling summer months and graduation festivities that unfurled, I’d be remiss not to take a further look at my blog series entitled “Federal Agency Succession Planning (Part 1): Is 50 the new 30?”, which undoubtedly provided the basis for my doctoral dissertation. While, the initial blog post highlights the aging federal workforce and why the federal government has trouble developing an effective succession pipeline plan, my dissertation sought to determine specific qualifications and critical skills, as well as, the institutional knowledge that would be necessary to prepare the next generation of senior civilian executives.


Any quantitative study has a set of assumptions, constraints, and limitations to abide by, and the Delphi study that I embarked on was no different. A Delphi study is an important tool that researchers use to forecast the future and involves surveying expert panelists through multiple rounds to gain consensus regarding a specific topic or question. Considering my background, my study focused more specifically on the DOD and the U.S. Department of the Army’s SES (Senior Executive Service) workforce. With nearly 60% of all civilian senior leaders eligible to retire, as of March 2015, the potential mass exodus could result in a significant skills gap for future senior civilian executive candidates. The potential vacancies, alone, produce a looming threat, in addition to hiring practices and concepts developed in the 1940s that have effectively prevented the federal government from developing a modern and efficient succession planning process.

Defining the core skills and competencies for senior civilian executives is an important step in developing strategies, training programs and models to prepare the next generation of Army senior civilian executives. The purpose of my Delphi study was to identify and define a set of guidelines that Army leaders could use to transfer skills from incumbent Army SES members to their potential replacements. The study allowed me to survey ten retired Army SES members, in the Washington D.C. metropolitan region, who were uniquely qualified as experts to determine which practices were necessary to have success in those executive positions. When evaluating a homogenous group using the Delphi method, a smaller sample of between ten to fifteen participants yields sufficient results because the focus of the study determines its sample size. The geographical location was chosen because 76% of SES members perform their duties in either Washington D.C., Virginia, or Maryland.

The most essential research question that was posed appeared as follows: “What knowledge transfer mechanisms might Army managers use to capture and transfer skills from one generation to another as massive retirement occurs in the 21st century?” To achieve a consensus, the study first involved individual open-ended interviews with the retired SES panelists, where the responses were gathered and used to derive a set of Round 1 statements. The panelists where then tasked with rating the list of statements, on a scale of 1 to 4 (where 4 was the highest), based on their expertise and experience. Each subsequent round was an iterative process, where additional statements could be added, based on their relevance. During the last two rounds of the study, averages were calculated for each of the derivative statements, and then statistically aggregated to produce the group’s consensus final answer.

During the outset, a significant portion of time and effort was spent determining the appropriate methodology to yield significant findings. The Delphi method provided a perfect vehicle for defining consensus positions surrounding this particular study. The findings from this study can be used to help resolve both current and future succession development challenges. Hopefully these findings will enhance the prospects of positive career growth for SES hopefuls by highlighting the processes and methods necessary for Army leaders to implement favorable succession and human capital planning strategies. In an effort to not completely bury the lede, I can further discuss those findings in the next installment of this series.