Federal Employees News Digest

New White House team in town: How will it affect feds?

As we at FEND hit our publishing deadlines in mid-November, the near-final official election counts from swing states are matching the major news organizations’ predictions from the previous week, bringing victory in almost every swing state for the challenger, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.)—with the notable exception of North Carolina going to President Trump. What all this means of course is that, despite the present moment—a tortuous and slow transition unlike any since at least 2000—come January, we will have a new president.

Career federal employees must keep politics out of the performance of their jobs—and clear of fulfilling the mission of their employing agency. But like any working people—especially now—they want salary and benefits to track with inflation, for management to be competent, and motivation and morale to hang in there. Every administration and era brings challenges and threats to these needs. As this presidential term closes, there are problems—most recently with regard to the Schedule F proposal—that feds are calling out in many ways, telling unions and Congress about their dissatisfaction with the White House efforts to change, arguably illegally, the federal workplace. This week, Nathan Abse interviews Kenneth Warren, political scientist at Saint Louis University and expert on the federal civil service, about this last-gasp try by the outgoing president to revamp the workforce, and what’s in store for feds from the new administration.

Q&A with Kenneth Warren

No matter how rocky the transition, in January a new president will be sworn in. So, bottom line: Will a Biden administration better look after federal workers’ workplace needs and pay?

Warren: Federal workers, overall, are likely to get more—at least more respect and likely more and better pay and benefits—under the new president. Why do I say this? Because the Democrats have always been more favorable to federal and public workers.

With respect to the outgoing president’s latest and very unpopular move with feds, will the new president roll back the Schedule F proposal?

Warren: I would say, yes, he’s very likely to do that. Sen. Biden has shown in the past he has respect for people in Washington, in general, who work for government. The Schedule F EO is not legal or helpful. Now, President Trump to his credit identified a “swamp” that to some extent is there, you know, in my and many others’ opinion? Only he not only didn’t drain it, he made it worse. He’s increased the influence of money alone in politics and policies, not cut it.

A half-century ago Congress passed the State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act—to support state governments and bureaucracies; now, some argue, it’s federal agencies in need. Do you agree the federal brand is tarnished, and that we’re in trouble on recruiting able young people?

Warren: There are a few questions here. There’s a book that comes to my mind, “The Maligned States,” by Ira Sharkansky—so titled because its author was defending against the idea that state and local—not federal—civil servants were being unfairly maligned. But you know, the federal government is still very capable. No one is as credentialed as federal officials. If you look at the federal sector, its agencies and departments, they have far more advanced degrees than anywhere else in the public sector—and even the private sector, even many top companies. More administrators and high-level employees in the federal government have advanced degrees. My view on this is that—and this depends on the context, or department, I’m sure—the federal brand has been hurt in places, but not damaged generally to the degree your question implies. There are many who have been quitting, we’ve seen that more in recent years, but there’s not an overall trendline. In short, it’s not right to say federal agencies and their brand has gone bad. Yes, some once very highly regarded agencies have gone down some. For example the FBI has in recent years—their public approval rating that has dropped maybe 10 points. But overall, across agencies—no. By the way, I encourage your readers to consult my article—"Has democratic governance and the rule of law been compromised by the continued growth of the administrative state?” Federal agencies are quite able.

If the federal government as a workplace is not badly hurt, can you fine-tune the real picture?

Warren: The point is, your question—and the concern—is a very old trope. That is, “The private sector is better than the public sector,” theme. It doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes and in places true, but in general it’s just an oversimplification. But if you actually go deeper into the private sector—into all the bankruptcies and troubles they’ve had in the private sector, as I’ve done in some of my work, in my research, then the reality is varied. I can agree that some would say yes to your question, and some polls can show the federal bureaucracy to have a big credibility gap. But there is a perception, despite the reality, about government workers vs. private sector overall. So many companies are troubled. So many companies ask for bailouts. It’s just not accurate to say that the public sector functions or is managed worse than the private sector. There are other layers to the discussion. For instance, much of this perception has to do with the government running things that do not break even. But think of all the things—many are essential services—that the government runs because the private sector could not make a profit off them, and sort of dumped them on the government. For instance, trains and public transportation systems. Some criticize public transportation because it operates at a deficit. I say right back to them: Why do you think the government ended up with these? Because in the old days a bunch of private companies ran public transportation systems, and when the economics of that changed, they went belly up. So, the government ended up running them.

Right, that’s true and an important point: Many needed services can’t make a profit, but neither they nor the government left holding the bag to run them should be denigrated for it!

Warren: You can’t do away with much of it. Not only with public rail systems, but bus systems, all kinds of public transportation. I mean a lot of lower-income people really have no other means to get around. And by the way a lot of wealthier companies rely on public transportation users as workers—who have to get to work, somehow. By and large in this country, most people who use public transportation, well, in most cities, are poorer people.

Back to federal employees, though: The problem remains that many experts on government are sounding the alarm about recruitment and retention for federal jobs—what’s your take?

Warren: There are problems, right now perhaps especially. But go back to public opinion polls about federal employees and the public sector, because they are important. Pollsters ask people their opinion of various institutions. Congress? It gets maybe a 15 percent approval rating. Or lower. Terrible. The President? In the mid-30s to mid-40s. (Of course in some administrations it can run much higher.) Federal courts? Usually higher. Now, if you poll someone on their opinion of “the federal bureaucracy” you’ll get one answer, and it’s likely much higher than of Congress, but lower than it would be if you used different words. That’s because “bureaucracy” is of course a negative, a pejorative term to many people.

So you don’t think there is a crisis in respect to recruiting, or the federal brand?

Warren: No. Not for now. Because, if you poll the same person who has a negative view of the “federal bureaucracy” instead about individual agencies, for most agencies you’ll get much higher approval ratings. If you poll on FBI, CIA, State, Defense, State—they all actually do get decent ratings, from feds and the public—and in almost every case, higher than elected officials do. My point is the federal bureaucracy is still competent—and pretty popular, depending on how you ask the question. Public opinion on federal agencies is not as bad as all that. Even among young people, it is not as bad as some make it out to be. That’s my take on this issue. I think that this is true of recruitment, too. That’s not as good as it has been in the past, but not at rock bottom either.

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