WHEN DONALD TRUMP took office in January 2017, Joel Clement was entering his seventh year running the Interior Department’s Office of Policy Analysis. Mr Clement worked on climate-change preparedness, particularly for Alaskan Natives in low-lying coastal villages. He knew that Mr Trump was a climate-change sceptic, but, he explains, “I didn’t think there would be a problem. These were actual people at risk. It’s not a question of what caused climate change; it’s what was already happening. I was naive. They came out swinging.” In June 2017 Mr Clement—who has experience in neither accounting nor the fossil-fuel industry—was reassigned to an office that collects royalty checks from oil, gas and mining firms.
Mr Clement was one of 27 senior officials reassigned; he resigned soon afterwards. Perhaps he should not have been surprised. Different administrations do things differently. Mr Trump ran as a climate-change sceptic and made Jeff Sessions his first attorney-general; of course his environmental and civil-rights policies would be different from Barack Obama’s. Yet even those who wish the federal government were much smaller have an interest in making sure that its bureacracies can perform the tasks that most Americans agree are vital, from air-traffic control to co-ordinating the response to natural disasters. The federal government’s ability to do these things was in question long before 2016. Then Mr Trump happened.
Criticising the federal government—which employs around 2.1m civilians, making it America’s single biggest employer—is the hardiest perennial of American politics. To many outside Washington, DC, it is an abstraction and hence easy to caricature, mock or blame. Its most visible bits (namely, Congress) tend to be unpopular, while its essential functions often go unseen. Americans seldom encounter the scientists ensuring their water stays clean or that nuclear waste is properly disposed of. Most people do not think of the men and women they salute at football games as employees of the federal government.
Despite many Republican presidents running on government-shrinking platforms, and many Democrats doing the opposite, the size of the federal workforce has remained relatively constant since the 1960s. Since 1965 the federal government has added five departments and multiple agencies that collectively employ hundreds of thousands of people. It has also endured long hiring freezes. The total number of workers matters less to effective governance than what those workers do, and here alarm bells have been ringing for some time. Max Stier, who heads the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group that advocates for an effective civil service, says that the “legacy government has not kept up with the world around it…[and] has not been updated to address the problems of tomorrow.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which audits the federal government, has long warned of problems in recruiting and retaining public-spirited workers. The compensation system was designed in 1949 and has barely since been altered. This can make it hard to offer competitive salaries to, say, cyber-security experts. Civil-service rules have not been updated since the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. The government frequently recruits for positions whose descriptions were written 40 years ago and do not reflect the actual work being done. According to Mr Stier, the federal IT workforce has five times as many people over the age of 60 as under 30, and most of the $95bn spent on federal IT goes to patching and maintaining ancient systems. And while low and mid-level government workers earn salaries comparable to or better than what they could make in the private sector, senior officials earn far less. Government workers must also endure hiring freezes, furloughs and government shutdowns.
Until fairly recently federal workers did at least receive non-monetary compensation, such as reputational boosts, or the satisfaction of contributing to the common good. Teresa Gerton, who heads the National Academy of Public Administration, says this bargain has started to fray. “We saw it during the shutdown last year. The impact that had on the morale of the current and future public workforce was devastating.” Nor does serving for the most divisive president in modern history provide the same social compensation as serving a Reagan or a Clinton.
Morale in the intelligence community and State Department—both frequent targets of Mr Trump’s ire—is lower than the Badwater Basin. Intelligence officers usually battle to get their work included in the president’s daily brief. Today, says a source familiar with American intelligence, they fight to stay off it, lest their analysis set the president off because it clashes with his fixed beliefs. Former foreign-service officers (FSOs) complain about a lack of direction and months of painstaking work being nullified by a presidential tweet. In recent weeks two ex-FSOs have written op-eds in newspapers explaining why they could no longer serve this White House. That is rarely done: FSOs understand they will serve administrations whose policies they may dislike, but they represent something greater than themselves, and few slam the door on the way out. Often the people leaving have good offers in the private sector and are the sort of people that a government should want to retain.
Nor is the problem limited to departing personnel. Mr Trump’s penchant for installing people on an acting basis rather than formally nominating them, the unusually high number of unfilled positions, the headspinning rate of turnover among senior staff and the number of nominees he has had to withdraw—65, compared with 34 for Mr Obama at this point in his presidency—render government unstable. Agencies’ attention turns toward senior-staff turnover rather than their missions; recruits do not know who they will work for in six months.
Of course, not everyone in government is running for the exits. Mr Trump has plenty of fans among immigration police, whose former acting head praised the president for “taking the handcuffs off”. Morale, measured in annual surveys, is also comparatively high at the departments of Transportation and Health and Human Services, agencies that Mr Trump has either boosted or ignored.
If the Trump administration is upset about the hollowing out of American government, it does not show. The Agriculture Department is losing researchers after Sonny Perdue, the secretary, announced that two research agencies would move to Kansas City, not an unreasonable request in itself, but one which some see as a way to sideline inconvenient personnel. Mick Mulvaney, the president’s acting chief of staff, celebrated their departure at a Republican fundraiser, calling it “a wonderful way to streamline government”. But there is a difference between streamlining government and just not governing, which is what seems to be happening in swathes of America’s single-largest organisation.■