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Protecting Your Federal Career

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Davis
March 7, 2017

A civil service career is a delicate creation. It is built on percentages accumulated over many years. The lifetime rewards are great. You can do (more or less) what you want while enjoying a middle-class life and a secure retirement. You don’t have to be constantly grubbing for money, making a sales quota or bending the facts to serve a client. The rewards are probably highest in the environmental area. You can do God’s work in cleaning up the air and water, and, if you are lucky, you can work outside in a beautiful natural setting.

The transition to the Trump administration has brought attention to the fragility of a civil service career. The new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, is a man devoted to destroying the agency. Trump’s choice for Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, has a record of seeking to exploit public land and crippling the Antiquities Act. He will oversee the Office of Surface Mining, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The new Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, is a billionaire who won’t give up his fleet of oil tankers. He will oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency which deals with global warming as well as fisheries and marine mammals.


Public administration reformers of a century ago advocated neutral competence. Civil servants would use their expertise to implement the laws Congress passed and the President signed. To ensure their neutrality, employees would have their jobs protected against firing for partisan reasons. Later in the twentieth century, neutral competence was overlaid with democratic theory saying presidents and Congress should guide agencies to reflect the will of the voters. Hence, a new administration is entitled to have the bureaucracy bend to its policies.

A corollary to the neutral competence and democratic theories is that the president has many Schedule C appointments to give political guidance. In fact, a new administration needs the support of senior civil servants who share its views. Moreover, many Schedule C appointees have strong technical knowledge.

Numerous civil servants are bristling at following President Trump’s policies on the environment. They had sought careers in EPA, DOI or NOAA because they believed in their agencies’ mission. They intend to resist. Although it is too early for a controversy to have emerged in an environmental agency, an instance occurred in the Department of Justice when President Trump fired acting attorney general, Sally Yates, for refusing to support the immigration ban on Muslims based on the Immigration Act and the First Amendment. This example is not on point, however, because Yates was occupying a presidentially appointed post.

The options for a disenchanted civil servant depend on their level and longevity. Those eligible for retirement can do so immediately, or if they are fighters to resist with the option of retiring when forced to do so. Those at the junior level can leave to look for a career elsewhere, perhaps in a state or local agency. That leaves a group in the middle — too young to retire but with too much invested in a Federal agency to quit. Perhaps they can shelter in place, giving minimal support to anti-environmental programs. They are the B Team; they will be there when the Trump administration is over.

Seeking a career in a state or local agency has its problems because they depend heavily on funding from the Federal level and are likely to be starved. Pruitt has talked about turning over EPA work to the states, but the public views this merely a way to weaken the programs. Moreover, not all states are fully committed to environmental values. California, New York and Maryland may be all right, but what about Texas?

Opportunities in business are limited. Corporations looking for program experts and lawyers usually want them to pollute rather than to clean the air or water. The demand in industry for foresters and marine biologists is low. Lax enforcement will decrease the need for chemists and botanists.

Around the Federal government, the threat seems greatest at the EPA. Pruitt is intelligent and motivated and the agency’s mission is entirely environmental. At Interior, a much bigger department, Zinke has a few other bureaus like energy management, hydroelectricity and Indian affairs to dilute his attention and, coming from Montana, has more appreciation for nature. At Commerce, the priority for Ross is foreign trade. Still, for Interior and Commerce, assistant secretaries and bureau directors yet to be hired will make the difference.

For a dedicated employee in EPA, Interior and Commerce, the future appears gloomy. Four years working in a milieu of hostility toward the environment can ruin a career. It may be time to teach science or go to medical school.

Author: Davis has worked for EPA and the Department of the Interior. Email him at [email protected].

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