Although it’s only been a week since the inauguration, changes in federal government have been coming fast. It’s a lot to keep track of. But, it’s crucial for federal employees and people who work with the government to stay informed about new developments.
The below is a report about recent developments that may affect federal agency management and employment. Things are changing constantly. By the time you read this, there will undoubtedly be new developments. This roundup cannot include everything that has happened so far. The focus is on presidential transition news most relevant to federal employees. Check out the linked sources for more information.
Finally and importantly, this is not an opinion about or endorsement of any policies, regulations, elected officials, or the behaviors or actions of political appointees, federal employees, or agencies.
1. No new hires for 90 days
One of Trump’s first presidential memorandums started a federal hiring freeze on January 22. The memo exempts military personnel, presidential appointments, and non-career senior executive service employees, and allows limited exemptions for national security and public safety.
Agencies are eager for more specifics than the memo provides. OMB confirmed that the freeze applies to civilian positions that support the military, and has issued guidance about applicable hire and offer dates. The White House also clarified that the freeze applies to the Department of Veteran Affairs. Agencies still await answers on what qualifies as national security and public safety, the status of temporary and seasonal positions, and more.
The memorandum directs OMB to develop a “long-term plan to reduce the…workforce through attrition” within 90 days. With a priority on attrition, federal agencies shouldn’t assume they’ll be allowed to return to past hiring levels anytime soon. It will also be a long while before we’ll know if this freeze will achieve results that past hiring freezes did not.
Right now, there are no details about the hiring freeze on the OMB section of whitehouse.gov, since no information exists there at all. This has made federal employees and the public dependent on media coverage for the latest information. Federal employees may also receive updates from OMB, relayed through their agency heads.
2. Restrictions on public communications
Since Inauguration Day, employees of several government agencies have been ordered not to communicate with the media and the public, or have been told external communications now require extra reviews and approvals.
The communications bans vary by agency, and have changed frequently. Restricted activities include speaking with media, discussing research, corresponding with public officials, issuing press releases, adding new website content, webinars and speaking commitments, and posting to social media and blogs. According the Sunlight Foundation, the agencies affected include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health, and the departments of Energy, the Interior, Health and Human Services, and Transportation. While not attributed to a change in agency policy or a communications ban, prior to the inauguration, the CDC canceled a long-planned conference on climate and health. The White House said it did not order the bans.
Some of the bans have since been rescinded or eased, while others have become more restrictive. On January 25, the Associated Press reported that “everything” at the EPA is now “subject to review” by Trump’s political appointees, including tax-payer funded studies and data. Though Reuters reported that the Trump administration had ordered the EPA remove the climate section from its website, InsideEPA said the deletion has been “temporarily suspended” while an EPA spokesman told The Hill that the entire website is being reviewed.
On highly visible social media channels, reactions have been mixed. A few agencies have made subtle—though perhaps not intentional—shifts in the tone they use and topics they share. Badlands National Park briefly and notably tweeted about climate change (the tweets were deleted and attributed to a former employee). There are also dozens of new, unofficial agency-themed social media accounts, several of which claim to be run by federal employees. And, it’s no surprise that many agencies have gone silent on their official communication channels.
3. Grant, contract, and regulatory freezes
On Inauguration Day, the White House issued an immediate freeze on new and pending regulations and guidance documents. Bloomberg notes that while a regulatory freeze is not unusual for new administrations, guidance documents are not typically included and, this time, agencies have no discretion over what to put on hold. As a result, Politico reported that “many agencies seem to be erring on the side of pulling everything pending at the Federal Register.” Among the many regulations put on hold, the EPA has delayed at least 30 environmental regulations.
As first reported by the Huffington Post and ProPublica, the Trump administration has also ordered EPA staff to freeze grants and contracts. Though it’s unknown how long the freeze will last, according to E&E News, the transition team hopes to finish reviewing the grants and contracts by January 27, “depend[ing on] how well we are able to communicate with agency professionals.” Until the review is complete, it’s uncertain which grants and contracts will be permanently stopped or cut. E&E News reports that some EPA funds are still flowing as “states have continued to receive at least some of their EPA grant funding, including money to meet federal air standards.”
The combination of the ban on communications at the EPA, the regulatory freeze, pending EPA website changes, and the grant and contract freeze has raised concerns about the future of the agency.
4. New faces
The list of the Trump administration’s political appointees is ever-changing. Most positions are still vacant pending nomination or confirmation. The Washington Post maintains a list of the 690 positions that require Senate confirmation. As of the writing of this article, the four confirmed appointees are Nikki Haley, UN Ambassador; John Kelly, Homeland Security; James Mattis, Defense; and Mike Pompeo, CIA.
Other positions have caught the attention of government employees and the public. Among those staying on are Francis Collins, National Institutes of Health (temporarily); James Comey, FBI; and Ajit Pai, FCC Commissioner (who needs to be reconfirmed by the end of the year).
While the administration appoints new people, long-time career government employees are deciding to stay or go. Just before the inauguration, Matt Cutts announced he’d stay at the U.S. Digital Service . On January 26, The Washington Post reported the resignation of the “entire senior level of management officials” at the State Department. The same day, the Associated Press reported that Mark Morgan, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, had been “forced out.”
5. An uncertain future for some agencies and programs
Though the Trump administration’s full budget won’t be revealed for months, it’s already taking shape. Just before the inauguration, The Hill reported about a preliminary budget proposal that cuts funding for or ends programs at the departments of Commerce, Energy, Transportation, Justice, and State. The proposal also would privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and eliminate National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. It’s unknown whether these changes will be in the final budget.
People are also keeping an eye on President Obama’s “tech surge” agencies, especially the U.S. Digital Service and 18F. Before Trump’s inauguration, Backchannel, Bloomberg, Politico, and elsewhere speculated that the tech agencies may have trouble recruiting and retaining talent. On January 23, Gerrit Lansing, the former chief digital officer of the Republication National Committee and the White House’s new Chief Digital Officer tweeted, “FYI: @USDS is here to stay in the new administration. Period.” Though the USDS may not vanish completely, the same day as Lansing’s tweet, Federal News Radio reported that there’s talk in the Trump administration about changing the size and reporting structure of the USDS.
What presidential transition developments have caught your attention? What new stories are you and your colleagues talking about at the office? Share your thoughts in the comments. (However, please keep politics out of the conversation.)
Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, writer, and speaker based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.