Trump Went to War With His Own Government. Biden Now Has to Repair It.
The Washington Post
By Joe Davidson
As Joe Biden enters the White House and Trump exits, disgraced by two impeachments, differences in their approach to the federal workforce are evident in their campaign rhetoric. Trump's view was framed by his 2016 campaign declaration to "drain the swamp," an insult many feds took personally. Biden praised them in 2020 as "dedicated public servants."
Trump is someone who "misunderstood the purpose of the career workforce, who went to war with his own [government] . . . with the public's workforce," said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that studies the federal government. "He's done enormous damage."
Now, Biden has a long list of damage to undo.
At the top are actions that can be done with a pen stroke.
Biden can immediately reverse five Trump executive orders aimed directly the federal workplace. Three from 2018 sharply curtailed the ability of organized labor to represent employees, including those who are not union members, and allowed agencies to fire feds faster.
Last year, an executive order created a new workforce category, Schedule F, without civil service protections, which would allow those employees to be fired for political reasons. In his first hours as president Biden did reverse another 2020 Trump directive that halted many essential elements of diversity and inclusion training provided by agencies, including those covering institutional and unconscious sexism and racism.
Trump's legacy is that of "one of the most wretched in the history of the civil service and the federal government," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), the chairman of the House government operations subcommittee whose district includes thousands of federal employees. "I mean, very hostile." That includes attempts to inappropriately politicize agencies and leaving vacant some positions at agencies serving the workforce, while filling other slots with union-busting appointees.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment, but Trump's actions are clear.
His most dramatic workforce-related action was instigating a 35-day partial government shutdown just before Christmas in 2018. It was a double whammy for federal employees and contractors. They could not do their jobs and were denied government services.
"These are some of the most talented, hard-working and inspiring people you will ever meet," Biden said in a campaign questionnaire from the American Federation of Government Employees.
Yet even the most hard-working can become dispirited amid the toll Trump's actions took on federal employee moral, attrition and government services.
"You've lost a lot of extremely talented individuals who are now gone and therefore not serving the public," Stier said. Morale is down in many agencies and Trump "diminished the capability of government to respond to big crises," notably covid-19.
Part of the reason the U.S. coronavirus death rate is higher than many countries, with more than 400,000 dead and 24 million infected, is because, Trump "did not lead the government effectively," Stier said.
Part of leading is listening to the people being led. Trump nixed a primary vehicle for that when, early in his term, he abolished labor-management forums that facilitated communication between employees and top officials across the government. That signaled "his administration did not care to include employees in agency decision making," said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, "or even listen to them about key issues impacting their agencies and workplaces."
Employee morale suffered under Trump compared with previous years. The Partnership's latest Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report, based on Office of Personnel Management survey data, says 45 percent of federal agencies registered an increase in employee engagement in 2019. That's compared with 72.3 percent in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration. Trump's agencies actually rated a little better than that in 2017, before many of his notorious moves. Then in 2018, Trump's rating plummeted to 39.6 percent.
Biden can help reverse that by "engaging all elements of the federal workforce," said Jason Briefel, director of policy and outreach for the Senior Executives Association. He recommends Biden start by meeting with the 7,000-plus members of the Senior Executive Service, the top-level government civil servants. In this digital age, Biden could meet with the entire 2.1 million federal workforce virtually.
"The constant attacks on the so called 'deep state' dangerously undermined confidence in our institutions of government," Briefel said by email. "At some agencies the abuse and disregard for Feds, especially in scientific agencies, was egregious and will take effort to repair."
Employee representatives are confident Biden will make a strong effort to do that.
Biden has made it clear, said Matt Biggs, secretary-treasurer of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, "that his administration will move quickly in putting in place measures to repair the great damage that has been done by President Trump."