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Succession Planning and Management Practice in Washington State Local Public Health Agencies

Wiesman, John M. DrPH, MPH; Babich, Suzanne M. DrPH, MS; Umble, Karl PhD; Baker, Edward L. MD, MPH, MSc

Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: November/December 2016 - Volume 22 - Issue 6 - p 512–519
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000000397
Original Articles

Context: Turnover of top local public health officials is expected to be great, with 23% being 60 years of age or older, and another 42% being 50 to 59 years of age. Yet, we know little about the use of succession planning in public health agencies.

Objective: Describe succession planning practices in local public health agencies.

Design: We conducted a Web-based, cross-sectional survey of succession planning practices and followed the career paths of public health officials for 40 months.

Setting and Participants: The top local public health officials from Washington State's 35 local governmental public health agencies.

Main Outcome Measures: Twenty-five succession planning best practices.

Results: All 35 agencies responded, resulting in a 100% response rate. Our study found evidence of succession planning practices in Washington State local public health agencies: 85% of agencies selected high-performing high potential employees for development, 76% sent them to formal technical and management/leadership training, 70% used cross-functional team projects, and 67% used stretch assignments to develop their employees. Impetuses to implement succession planning were discovering that large percentages of employees were able to retire soon and that national accreditation requires workforce development plans. Barriers to implementing succession planning included other competing demands for time, belief that the agency's workforce was too small for a formal program, and concerns that there would be union barriers. In 2012, 50% of the officials surveyed said that it would be at least possible that they would leave their current jobs within 5 years. Forty months later, 12 (34%) had left their positions.

Conclusions: We were encouraged by the level of succession planning in Washington State and recommend creating a greater sense of urgency by focusing on agency retirement profiles and emphasizing the need for workforce development plans for accreditation. Developing the public health leaders of tomorrow is too important to be left to chance.

This study aims at succession planning practices in local public health agencies.

Washington State Department of Health, Olympia (Dr Wiesman); Health Policy and Management, Indiana University, Indianapolis, Indiana (Dr Babich); and Health Policy and Management, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Drs Umble and Baker).

Correspondence: John M. Wiesman, DrPH, MPH, Washington State Department of Health, PO Box 47890, Olympia, WA 98504 (

The authors credit Shannon Hoskins, MPH, and Catherine Kroll, MPH, who completed the statistical analysis of the data. In addition, Dorothy Cilenti, DrPH, MPH, MSW, and Pat Libbey, both provided feedback on the research and moral support to the first author while serving on his dissertation committee.

This research was conducted as part of the first author's executive DrPH dissertation when he was a student at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The research was entirely self-funded by the first author.

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Supplemental digital content is available for this article. Direct URL citation appears in the printed text and is provided in the HTML and PDF versions of this article on the journal's Web site (

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