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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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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to Protecting Your Federal Career

  1. Michael Wald Reply

    March 7, 2017 at 6:10 pm

    Gee, I wish I had spent 30 years working in David Davis’s government. Instead, I worked for the Federal Government.

    “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”

    In what life do you get to do what you want, more or less? In the Federal Government, you had to follow instructions to the letter. There was less discretion than in any of my private-sector jobs. As Federal employees our actions are scrutinized by the public, which think all Federal employees guilty of fraud, waste, and abuse, and are quick to report any activity that they deem inappropriate, whether it was or not.

    There is no academic freedom in the Federal government, and Federal employees are expected to support the policies of their agency regardless of whether they agree or not. You lose many of your political rights when you join the Federal government. As a Federal employee, the public expects you to represent the entire government. Any citizen who is unhappy with politics or any issue feels free to unload on any Federal employee

    As for safety from sales quotas, we have production quotas which have to be met, including having to convince unwilling companies to voluntarily supply information to our agency.

    One of my government assignments was a 100% travel position where we could only come home on weekends if we were less than 250 miles from home on a Friday afternoon.

    As for a secure retirement, you spend your entire Federal career watching Congress discuss how to take away your benefits.

    Most of my career, nothing substantial occurred, but it hardly felt secure knowing that every few years, Congress would consider how to make the retirement system less generous or how to increase health insurance costs or how to “re-organize” your unit.

    When Congress couldn’t agree on a budget, they shut down the government and you waited to see if you would receive a paycheck. Not a very secure feeling.

    In retirement, those discussions continue as Congress talks about reductions in Medicare, increase costs or elimination of Federal health insurance, and reductions in Federal pensions.

    I think it is great that people choose a career in the Federal government, and public service is a calling, but no one should approach it as a “safe haven” from the pressures felt in the private sector.

    Being a Federal employee in the 21st Century is a tough job. It was tough before the current administration, and nothing so far indicates that it will be getting any easier.

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