Department of Education
Credit: Ben Chun

Marin Cogan has written a story I was hoping someone would cover about the dilemma faced by federal civil servants with the election of Donald Trump. Here is how Cogan introduces the subject:

I came to Washington four months before the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and over the last eight years I’ve had a front-row view of the generation of civil servants who were drawn to Washington to work under his administration. By and large, they are smart, young, and idealistic about the role that government can play in the greater good. They are gay, racially and ethnically diverse, and socially progressive — even some of the more conservative among them. They were, apparently, the “Establishment” that Trump was promising to drain from the Washington swamp. Now, they’re watching as Trump appoints plutocrats with little or no relevant work experience to lead their agencies. It’s hard not to feel like Washington is about to be taken over by hostile invaders.

It is important to keep in mind that there are two types of federal employees: political appointments and civil servants. Traditionally, the latter serve through changes that result from presidential elections.

All federal employees have to prepare themselves psychologically to serve under an administration they disagree with, says Michael, who works at the Department of Justice. But the assumption most of them have always had is that their next president would respect most of the basic democratic norms. “Basically, when you are in the civil service you know that at some point you might end up serving under an administration that you didn’t vote for and don’t agree with,” he says.

Cogan talked to civil servants about this transition and their concerns varied from the very personal to larger questions of morals and values. For example:

  • Will I retain the protections provided by the Obama administration on things like same-sex benefits?
  • If I leave, will I be replaced by someone who is worse?
  • Trump and Republicans have promised to reduce the federal workforce by 10%, mostly through a hiring freeze. If I leave, will I be replaced at all?
  • Considering Trump’s remarks and the widely held views of the Republican Party, I’m not sure if my work will be seen as valuable.
  • I wonder if the incoming political appointees will have a harmful agenda and if they will lack the necessary background and knowledge of what we do.
  • I can’t work in an administration that is contrary to my values and beliefs.

While we would expect a certain amount of this when a president is elected from another party, the level of concern is amplified by the extremism demonstrated by Republicans and Trump during this election. It is also a direct result of the unprecedented way in which the president-elect’s Cabinet nominees have a history that indicates they will undermine the very mission of the departments in which these employees have been hired to work.

As Cogan says, a woman she calls Hannah (who works on international environmental issues) summed up a lot of what she heard.

“If I leave, I am creating a vacuum that may stay unfilled given hiring freezes, or may get filled by someone without the passion, understanding, or commitment to the cause. Either way, the work — the absolutely necessary and essential work — won’t get done,” she says. “This is all without even considering my own moral dilemma. The new administration, all the way to the top, is contrary to who I am as a person. I have no doubt, that what we will see is the purge of good, committed, and competent talent out of federal service.”

For those who have touted the idea of reducing the government to the size where it can be drowned in the bathtub, that will not be a concern. But for those of us who depend on the competent service of people like Hannah, it is cause for alarm.

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