Trump Won't Succeed by Attacking Federal Employees
The incendiary rhetoric of the Trump administration, and the potentially destructive nature of its policies, have served to amplify dissent and opposition by federal employees. A constantly adversarial relationship with the civil service will have harmful results for the country.
The Hill, By Chris Lu, opinion - 02/10/17
In “Team of Rivals,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin described how “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of government job seekers greeted Abraham Lincoln on his first day in office. The “spoils system” then in place allowed presidents to stack the government with their supporters, both guaranteeing loyalty and a source of political contributions.
Fast-forward a century and a half later, and new presidents don’t get to choose who makes up the civil service. What they get instead is a highly experienced and committed group of professionals with a proven track record of tackling complicated problems facing the nation and the world.
With every change in presidential administrations, there are always changes in policy and priorities. Not every civil servant agrees with the positions of a new president, but almost universally federal employees understand their responsibility to execute these new policies. This tension between change and stability is one of the hallmarks of our system of government. And that’s why the past three weeks have been so extraordinary.
The Trump administration is facing an unprecedented level of resistance and opposition from the federal civil service. A dissent memo at the State Department has garnered 1,000 signatures. Agency staffers are using encrypted messaging apps to share their concerns with one another. And, after gag orders were imposed in some agencies, dozens of rogue Twitter accounts have popped up to allow federal employees to communicate with the public.
The rise of social media has made it easier to amplify dissent, but that’s not the only reason why these voices of opposition are louder. Civil servants are reacting to the incendiary rhetoric of the Trump administration and the potentially destructive nature of its policies.
After all, this is a president who attacked federal employees as “bureaucrats who only know how to kill jobs," nominated Cabinet members who oppose the missions of the agencies they will lead, criticized government data as “phony," and instituted a hiring freeze that will cut vital services. One of his top surrogates has called for a “straight-out war” on the civil service, and House Republicans want the power to reduce any federal employee’s salary to a single dollar.
Despite this unprecedented attack on the civil service, the concern of the dissenters is not about their job security, but the consequences of Trump’s policies for longstanding domestic and foreign policy principles.
In response to this dissent, White House press secretary Sean Spicer has said, “I think they should either get with the program or they can go.”
Certainly, reasonable people can disagree about where to draw the line between a legitimate airing of grievances and gross insubordination – and how employees should understand their oath to support and defend the Constitution and their duty to execute the president’s instructions. But ignoring – or silencing – these voices will only create more headaches for the administration.
Trump’s Cabinet members would be well-served to adopt a different approach: they should sit down and listen to their employees.
That’s the approach that Tom Perez and I took at the Department of Labor during the Obama administration. When it came to our career employees, we wanted to hear the good, the bad and especially the ugly. We wanted to hear what they thought of the department’s programs – what was working well and what could be improved. We wanted to hear their frustrations about working at a large agency.
We didn’t follow through on every employee suggestion. We weren’t able to address every frustration. And we certainly didn’t put every decision up for an internal vote. But we created an environment where dissenting views could be aired, and our employees trusted us. This goodwill was important when employees had to work weekends and holidays to complete major projects – or when we adopted organizational changes or internal policies that not everyone supported.
To be sure, Tom Perez and I were differently situated than the Trump Cabinet. We never demeaned the underlying mission of our agency, as some of Trump’s nominees have done. We never said that “government really sucks.” And we never worked for a president who disrespected facts and science.
But that’s even more reason for Betsy DeVos, Tom Price and other secretaries to sit down early, hear from employees before taking action, and maintain channels for dissent. This dialogue needs to be regular and meaningful, and not just a first-day photo opp. And you know what – these leaders might actually learn something useful about running their agencies.
People experienced in Washington know all too well what happens when an administration maintains a constantly adversarial relationship with the civil service: a “guerilla warfare” of leaks, poor policy implementation, slow-walking, and obstruction. As David Gergen explained: “My experience is you’re far better off respecting the civil servants than you are by ignoring or dismissing them because it will come around and bite you in the end.”
For a president who has promised to run government more like a business, his Cabinet would be well-served to follow some core principles of good business leadership: “be willing to take time to meet with and listen to employees”; “strive to create a work environment that is open, trusting, and fun”; and “involve employees in decisions, especially those decisions that directly affect them.”
My source for this sage advice: “Managing for Dummies.”
Chris Lu is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center. During the Obama administration, he served as deputy secretary of Labor and White House Cabinet secretary. You can follow him at @ChrisLu44