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Experts: Too early to know how rhetoric will translate into action

This week, FEND's Nathan Abse interviews Stephen Fuller, professor of public policy at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government and Robert Denhardt, director of leadership programs and professor of public administration at the University of Southern California about the potential impacts of hard words and further cuts on the federal workplace.

Throughout the tumultuous 2016 presidential campaign, union leaders and employees in the federal workforce expressed concerns about candidates who talked budget cuts and—as did the president-elect—criticized of job being done by the federal workforce. Further, after years of enduring an unsympathetic Congress, federal workers are understandably wary of a president-elect whose reality TV tagline was "You're fired." This week, FEND's Nathan Abse interviews Stephen Fuller, professor of public policy at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government and Robert Denhardt, director of leadership programs and professor of public administration at the University of Southern California about the potential impacts of hard words and further cuts on the federal workplace.


Federal unions, employees and managers note the president-elect has had harsh words for the federal workforce—and offers a hiring freeze likely to cause more work overload. There has been formidable criticism of the federal workforce—how could this affect feds?

Denhardt: This isn't the first time this has happened. Reagan, and for that matter, Carter both came to office bureaucracy-bashing in comments and rhetoric. Other recent presidents have been more supportive, George H.W. Bush, for instance. To my mind, one of the most dramatic possible effects is that many political appointees will likely be coming into their work with an agenda, and with this kind of rhetoric, are likely to quickly try to impose that agenda without listening to those agencies, for a while. I suspect that the ‘getting to know one another’ phase will also be more difficult than usual. The agendas are so strong, and the political personalities being proposed to head agencies will likely be dramatic and opinionated. I suspect that there will be greater tension during this administration at the edge between the political and career leadership.

As you note, President Reagan was confrontational, for instance in breaking the federal air traffic controller union—it seems you think this administration might be as difficult for feds?

Denhardt: Yes, Reagan in part focused his attention on public unions, and was tough with PATCO and the federal unions. There was a dramatic drop in the appeal of public-sector unions in the Reagan White House. Now, I haven't seen many very direct statements from the president-elect's people on or against the federal unions—so I am not that sure what their message is on that issue. In many ways it doesn't seem as focused on the federal workforce as it is on some other areas.

How did President Carter reflect this kind of anti-fed feeling?

Dernhardt: President Carter—during his campaign—used some tough anti-Washington rhetoric. But actually, in terms of governing, he was more effective with the public sector. He even brought about a very important civil service reform. His was actually a fairly positive approach to public management at the federal level at that time.

Regarding anti-Washington rhetoric—and anti-government rhetoric—do you think Trump might take things further than Reagan or Carter (the latter, as you said, backed off once in office)?

Dernhardt: It's possible, yes. Now, the Trump administration might have some trouble attacking unions—including federal unions—as many of his voters were from the industrial states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota—states where unions play an important role. It is possible. He got support from some of those. There are many Trump voters who have been in unions or have benefitted from union activities. Frankly, this is unpredictable right now—hard to say. I think in the case of the president-elect, it would be more of a gut reaction how he approaches the federal workforce. But he does like people who like him. He was liked by the industrial states on Election Day—and he likely will remember that, as he might that some of his supporters were union people.

President-elect Trump has said he might effect a hiring freeze. What do you think about this?

Dernhardt: Again, it is hard to say if or when this might happen, really.

How does it affect the workers and their morale when many of the political appointees are likely to be those who talk against the government?

Denhardt: If it is pervasive, the organization can fall apart, really. I remember when I did work at a local government, and then had the front-line people tell me what message they might want me to take to top management. They told me: ‘Tell them we are not the enemy.’ I think Trump is going to have to learn, somehow, that federal employees are not the enemy. If he wants to get anything done, he is going to need these people.

If the president-elect pursues a strong anti-federal workforce stance, will he get resistance?

Denhardt: He will get resistance because he has talked about things so far out of the mainstream, some federal employees might say, ‘I just can't work for this guy.’ I was at a meeting at noon yesterday in California, talking about hiring the best and brightest executives. I said that we should open a recruiting office in Washington, because there will likely be a lot of talented people who want to leave.

Can you give an example?

Denhardt: For one thing, there are a lot of Muslims in the government. I do not recall how many. I was thinking about this. The New York mayor is also thinking about it, and said so. He noted there were many--hundreds, I think--in the NYC Police Department, and they are protecting citizens, right now. He's bound to be thinking about the president-elect's take on that so far, too.

I'll turn to Prof. Fuller. What do you make of the president-elect's plan for a hiring freeze, which all the federal unions oppose?

Fuller: This has actually happened before, in a sense. Now, my figures I'm offering here are about the Washington, D.C., area—and our roughly 360,000-plus federal workforce. We lost something like 50,000 federal jobs during the Clinton years. We also lost about 24,000 jobs due to the 2011 Budget Control Act and the budget standoff during the Obama administration. The forecast is that in terms of federal workers, we are going to lose about 18,000 more, as things stand, before 2020. That's the context this election occurred in.

How could the president-elect's call for a hiring freeze affect things for federal employee morale and the work they do?

Fuller: Now, here comes Trump. And he says he will freeze the workforce—but will exclude from the freeze DOD, DHS and some of the health agencies. That's about 50 percent of the workforce that will be included in his freeze. You plug in the figures and it translates to losing about 10 percent of the workforce over the next four years, or [in the D.C. area] about 18,000. Now, I can't tell if this means just the 18,000 we are already slated to lose, or an additional 18,000. I am not sure what he means here. But these jobs are high value-added jobs, good for the economy, yes, and more important, these jobs are strategic and necessary services. As retirees leave these kinds of jobs, they are senior people mostly, and they take with them a lot of knowledge. It's a real loss. Not filling these jobs leaves a real vacuum in management and institutional memory. In practice, in the past, some agencies ignored the freeze. They hired temporary workers or they got contracting going on. But it's not good.

What about all the criticizing of the federal workforce?

Fuller: That seems to be a popular thing for incoming presidents to do, criticizing the bureaucrats, and making them out to be bad people, instead of decent people providing essential services to keep our country strong. … Federal workers are very professional and will continue to do their job. They are clearly unappreciated and get beat up during most every presidential transition. When I came out of college, a federal job was the best job you could get. Now, they can't recruit enough good workers. Remember that federal hiring freezes hit veterans especially hard, though the president-elect says he wants to help in that area, too. This is not good for the country, longer term especially.

 

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