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The federal government puts out a ‘help wanted’ notice as Biden seeks to undo Trump cuts

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/22/2021 Lisa Rein
a man standing on a sidewalk: The Biden administration is racing to backfill a depleted federal government after dramatic cuts during Trump's four years in the White House. © Matt McClain/The Washington Post The Biden administration is racing to backfill a depleted federal government after dramatic cuts during Trump's four years in the White House.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, its staff depleted by Trump-era hiring freezes, is advertising for thousands of jobs. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is bringing on dozens of lawyers after being gutted by four years of budget cuts. The Agriculture Department is moving to replace hundreds of scientists who fled or were forced out by the last administration.

At the Justice Department, officials are looking to hire civil rights attorneys — and the Energy Department is recruiting for senior energy efficiency and renewable energy roles that went unfilled when Donald Trump was president.

That’s a fraction of the growth in the federal bureaucracy that the Biden administration would like to see, according to a $1.5 trillion preliminary budget the White House released in April, which directs billions of dollars into hiring to help curb climate change, restore enforcement of environmental and workplace laws, and expand safety net programs in housing, education, public health and veterans’ health.

President Biden vowed during his campaign to restore faith in a federal bureaucracy his predecessor villainized as an unaccountable “deep state” — and with debate stirring in Congress on $6 trillion in spending proposed by the White House, that shift now involves persuading Americans to embrace a bigger government.

Already, the vision is colliding with the reality that even in just a single term, Trump succeeded in his goal of cleaving and disrupting the federal government.

Some programs that are crucial to Biden’s agenda are so short-staffed that his administration can’t yet fully implement his policies, among them enforcement of fair-housing and workplace safety laws. A number of decisions by the Trump administration, including the relocation of key economic research and land management offices, are proving hard to reverse.

a group of people standing next to a man in a suit and tie: President Biden vowed during his campaign to restore faith in a federal bureaucracy his predecessor villainized as an unaccountable “deep state.” © Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post President Biden vowed during his campaign to restore faith in a federal bureaucracy his predecessor villainized as an unaccountable “deep state.”

The annual list of troubled federal programs, released in March by the Government Accountability Office, is longer than ever, a shift workforce experts attribute to vast areas of the government the Trump administration ignored. Auditors spotlighted “high-risk” areas vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement, ranging from oversight of the federal prison system to the Department of Health and Human Services’ leadership and coordination of public health emergencies.

Then there are delays that have nothing to do with Trump. Across the government, departments are waiting for money from the yet-to-be-negotiated federal budget to fill vacancies. Biden’s spending plan for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 is scheduled to be released May 28.

The two agencies expected to drive the rebuilding effort, the Office of Personnel Management and White House budget office, are missing top leaders, with no Senate action yet on the personnel nominee, Kiran Ahuja, and no nominee for the Office of Management and Budget. Biden’s first choice to lead the budget office, Neera Tanden, withdrew from consideration in March.

The personnel agency, whose profile the president is expected to elevate after a revolving door of permanent and acting leaders under Trump, is confronting major vacancies after his administration installed a slew of political appointees, now departed, to fill roles normally reserved for career employees.

“The short-term tactical issues are huge,” said Donald Kettl, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in the federal government. “But the [Biden] administration’s ability to wrestle with the really big questions has been slowed by the challenges of getting senior leadership in place.”

Despite Trump’s pledge to “cut so much your head will spin,” the largest government departments — Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security — grew during his presidency, leaving the bureaucracy 3.4 percent larger overall than when he became president, according to an analysis of federal personnel data by The Washington Post. That compares with 3.6 percent growth in President Barack Obama’s first term and 1.3 percent in his second, the data shows.

But that masked a plunge in staffing in a majority of Cabinet agencies Biden inherited, prompted by Trump reshaping the permanent workforce in a contraction long sought by conservatives.

Homeland Security grew by 6.9 percent, VA by 13 percent and the Commerce Department by 0.2 percent, for example, while Labor fell 11.8 percent, Education 5.9 percent and State 5.5 percent.

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As Trump rolled back regulations and aimed for a smaller, more targeted footprint, the government shed jobs in regulation, enforcement, civil rights, worker safety and other areas. The number of mine inspectors dropped 22 percent by December 2020 from four years earlier; Internal Revenue Service officers who collect delinquent taxes fell by 19.6 percent; soil scientists tumbled 16.3 percent; and public health educators were cut by 28.6 percent.

In a $1.8 trillion Biden administration spending plan separate from its preliminary budget and covering domestic priorities, the IRS would get an extra $80 billion to revive enforcement against wealthy tax cheats, whom Biden has vowed to target. The enforcement staff would grow by 15 percent each year over a decade.

The tax agency, with a full-time staff of 73,554 in fiscal 2019, has lost 20,000 employees since 2010, a third of them in the enforcement division, as a result of Republican-led budget cuts, agency data shows.

Long-standing challenges largely ignored during the Trump era are further complicating the attempt to rebuild the federal government, according to veterans of the bureaucracy. The federal pay and benefits system hasn’t changed since the 1970s, making the private sector more competitive for hard-to-fill jobs. The system fails to adequately assess talent, those veterans say, with a computerized, multiple-choice self-assessment that doesn’t always advance the best candidates to the list of job finalists.

The hiring process is so slow that qualified candidates get lost in the process and give up. Internship programs that should be attracting young talent have shriveled, and college recruiting is almost nonexistent at most agencies, requiring the Biden administration to make a fresh start at the diverse institutions it hopes to draw from.

More than a third of the civil service is eligible to retire in the next five years. With agencies desperately in need of information technology expertise, particularly in cybersecurity, just 6 to 7 percent of federal workers are under 30 years of age, and there is deep concern that the pipeline of young people who want to serve is shrinking.

a person standing in front of a building: The federal hiring process is so slow that qualified candidates get lost in the process and give up. © Matt McClain/The Washington Post The federal hiring process is so slow that qualified candidates get lost in the process and give up.

“Right now, the government brand has suffered,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which has presented Biden with recommendations for how his administration can attract a new generation of public servants, in part by overhauling recruiting, internships and hiring.

“This is not simply about undoing what Trump did,” Stier said. “Going back to where we were would not work in the world we’re in.”

The government has never been known to move quickly. Yet experts in the civil service say that carrying out the president’s ambitious initiatives to rebuild roads and bridges, expand social programs and fight climate change — atop continuing demands to battle the coronavirus — will require swift investments in the bureaucracy, which would be asked to step up coordination and take on new responsibilities.

Federal agencies are identifying their greatest needs to carry out Biden’s shift in priorities, posting job announcements for jobs from interns to senior executives, and approaching career employees who left under Trump to gauge their interest in returning as part-timers or political appointees.

Voice of America’s parent agency, for example, brought back several senior managers who had been sidelined by the agency’s tumultuous leadership during the Trump administration. But the Biden blueprint also suggests it wants a changed workforce — one more diverse and younger than the one Trump led.

The formal budget the White House is expected to release this month would bulk up much of what has been lost. The Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Social Security, State, Commerce, Education, Interior and the Small Business Administration would grow following the Trump years and a decade of mandatory budget caps, which “wore away their capacity to carry out core functions” from protecting public health and the environment to processing disability claims, according to the preliminary plan, known as the “skinny budget.”

President Biden's choices for key administration roles

Administration officials say their goal is returning to a mind-set that values expertise among career civil servants who serve as the government’s connective tissue.

“There’s been a clear signal from the top that there’s a high degree of value placed in the civil service,” said Yohannes Abraham, who led the Biden transition team and is now chief of staff for the National Security Council. He called rebuilding a “multiyear effort.”

“How do we make sure we have the full range of capabilities in America represented in the government, and reflective of the talent pool of the country?” Abraham asked. “That’s an easy thing to say but complicated to execute.”

a person standing in front of a building: Across the government, departments are waiting for money from the yet-to-be-negotiated federal budget to fill vacancies. © Matt McClain/The Washington Post Across the government, departments are waiting for money from the yet-to-be-negotiated federal budget to fill vacancies.

The Senior Executive Service, the bureaucracy’s cadre of senior leaders, lost hundreds of men and women to retirements at the top of their careers during the Trump era, many forced out by unwelcome reassignments.

“The experience that was driven out was so specific to government programs that you can’t just try and hire someone off the street to do similar work,” said Jeff Neal, a former personnel chief at the Department of Homeland Security and founder of the blog ChiefHRO.com.

“There were pretty disastrous decisions from a human capital standpoint,” said Jason Briefel, executive director of the Senior Executives Association, which represents 8,000 senior leaders in the federal government, the vast majority of them career employees.

Biden moved quickly to dismantle Trump executive orders seen as hostile to federal workers that restricted bargaining and appeal rights for disciplinary actions and sought to remove civil service protections from a large class of employees. He rescinded a Trump order that cut out diversity training, mandating that agencies root out discrimination in the workplace.

Administration officials say they had installed close to 1,500 presidential appointees at federal agencies by the president’s 100th day in office, double the number in previous administrations. Political appointees are being vetted by the White House personnel office in part for their commitment to respecting the career workforce they would be supervising, officials said.

“We very much continue to find appointees and nominees who prioritize working closely with and learning from the civil service,” said Gautam Raghavan, deputy director of the Office of Presidential Personnel. “We tell them, ‘The workforce was demoralized [when we took over],’ and we need to make sure they understand that building back this partnership is part of our approach.”

a screen shot of a man in a suit and tie: On Feb. 4, President Biden made the State Department his first stop at a federal agency. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images) On Feb. 4, President Biden made the State Department his first stop at a federal agency. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

In a symbolic visit in February, Biden made the State Department his first stop at a federal agency, telling employees battered by Trump’s disengagement from diplomacy that they had the new administration’s support.

Since then, the president has nominated several career Foreign Service officers to confirmable, high-ranking positions, and he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have pledged to turn to career diplomats for many plum ambassador posts, which were overwhelmingly filled by political donors and other appointees in the Trump administration.

Yet in an example of the difficulties the administration faces around the government, the State Department is still confronting a generational drought after senior leaders fled during the Trump era and others prepare to retire.

Applications for the Foreign Service exam plummeted to fewer than 6,000 last year from just under 12,000 in 2016, continuing a steady decline since the Cold War ended. The task now is to recruit with an eye toward diversity in the Foreign Service, which is mostly White.

“There’s a lot of discussion of reform,” said Ambassador Eric Rubin, a career diplomat and president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats. “The toughest issue is that we do not have sufficiently broad diversity among the new members of the Foreign Service coming in through the exam.”

The USDA has huge needs, too, mostly for scientists and economists, whose work will be crucial to Biden’s intent to refocus the agency on climate change, food safety and nutrition. These experts, in areas vital to farmers, are largely gone.

The agency hopes to quickly fill hundreds of open positions, spokesman Matt Herrick said, “but our needs are much greater than that. Our first order of business is restoring the confidence of our employees and morale among our workforce.”

a bridge over a road: The Agriculture Department is moving to replace hundreds of scientists who fled or were forced out by the last administration. © Matt McClain/The Washington Post The Agriculture Department is moving to replace hundreds of scientists who fled or were forced out by the last administration.

The unfilled jobs include close to 250 positions at the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, two key research arms that then-Secretary Sonny Perdue relocated in 2019 to Kansas City, Mo. Two-thirds of the workforce quit or found other government jobs rather than move.

“USDA has an outstanding workforce, but we lost some of the nation’s best economists, agricultural scientists and natural resources experts in the previous administration,” Herrick said.

The Biden team does not plan to move the offices back to Washington, though, given the upheaval it would create for employees who did relocate, as well as pushback from Missouri and Kansas, which invested heavily to lure the offices.

The problem of how to undo unpopular Trump policies is even more acute at the Interior Department, which last year moved the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo. — and scattered dozens of other executives to Western states.

The deliberate shift of power away from Washington prompted more than 87 percent of the roughly 350 affected employees to resign or retire rather than move, sending the land agency into a chaos from which it has not recovered, according to former officials.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is under pressure from some environmental advocates to return the staff to Washington. Otherwise, they say, its clout will be permanently weakened without a sustained presence in the seat of power.

“You can dislike the bubble, but if you’re not there, you’re not there at your own peril,” said Steve Ellis, who retired at the end of the Obama administration as a senior official with the land agency. Congressional Republicans and the state’s two Democratic senators are lobbying Haaland to keep the new headquarters in Colorado.

“The Interior Department’s new leadership will work with BLM career staff to understand the ramifications of the headquarters move and determine if any adjustments need to be made,” spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said in an email.

It would cost the government as much as $100,000 to move each employee back, by some estimates.

a person standing in front of a building: Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is under pressure from some environmental advocates to return staff to Washington. © Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is under pressure from some environmental advocates to return staff to Washington.

The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division lost about 14 percent of its staff, data shows — just one area where Trump gutted enforcement and weakened rules to protect worker pay, retirement and safety. In-depth inspections and investigations plummeted.

Biden has promised to double the number of inspectors at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which fell 12 percent under Trump to their lowest level in 40 years due to hiring freezes and a failure to fill vacant jobs, according to Jordan Barab, a senior leader at the agency during the Obama administration. But it will be two to three years before they’re trained and fully qualified to be in the field, Barab said.

At Housing and Urban Development, Secretary Marcia L. Fudge moved in April to reinstate fair-housing regulations central to Biden’s effort to advance racial equity. The last administration gutted a fair-housing program created as a cornerstone of Obama’s housing policy, reassigning some employees, while some found other jobs in the government.

“HUD’s staff is outstanding, but we are thousands of people short of where we ought to be and where staffing has been historically,” agency spokeswoman Meaghan Lynch said in an email. “We will employ a number of tactics to ramp up hiring in the coming months — particularly among career staff.” The fair-housing program will be central to the rebuilding effort, she said.

Some agencies have had quick success bringing on new hires. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has gotten 700 corrections officers and other staff in the door since February, spokeswoman Kristie Breshears said, with new incentives such as student loan repayments, competitive pay and faster accrual of vacation time. The staffing surge moved on an increasingly used fast track that gave the bureau flexibility to fill critical vacancies by working around some normal hiring rules. Other agencies have plans to do the same.

The department never recovered from a 2017 hiring freeze, Breshears said. About 3,800 employees were hired last year, but more than 2,700 employees left during the pandemic last year on top of expected retirements.

“We’re building our foundation back up,” she said.

Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this story.

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