President Trump at the White House on Jan. 16. (Evan Vucci/AP)

With President Trump’s first presidential anniversary days away, hundreds of political positions in the federal government still lack nominees. Perhaps some folks don’t want to work for someone they think may be a white supremacist, but that’s another column.

While the lack of political appointees can cause myriad problems, there also can be an upside for career staffers — like the opportunity for them to disrupt, which is not the same as resist.

In fact, Trump campaigned and has governed with disruption of the established order as a primary goal. A new survey on “Navigating Disruption” sought to determine if government leaders “are being inducted into a new phase of government service, with disruption as its key operating principle.”

Think of disruption as bold action upsetting the status quo. That can be good or bad.

The survey, conducted by the Association of Government Accountants (AGA) and the Grant Thornton accounting firm, focused on federal chief financial officers (CFOs), but the findings also are relevant to other career government leaders.

Although the report says “disruption may be an uncomfortable notion to some,” feds, and the public, better get used to it if they aren’t already.

“The tenor surrounding the current administration’s approach suggests financial managers could see significantly more disruption in the future than ever before in recent past,” according to the report.

In the hands of effective civil service managers, disruption when political appointees aren’t in place can be a good thing. Some of the participants, the survey found, believe with “the slow pace of onboarding political appointees, career staff should take full advantage of the current disruptive environment to effect change.”

Their comments included “this is a very unique opportunity for career staff to participate in a revolution of sorts,” and “there are not enough politicians in place to solve the big problems; so, let’s see the career folks take bold action.”

The opportunity is available because Trump is a laggard, compared to recent predecessors, in filling appointed positions. As of Friday, about 40 percent of key, Senate-confirmed appointments had no nominees, according to the Partnership for Public Service, which runs an appointment tracker along with The Washington Post.

“The high number of leadership vacancies will have negative implications for the administration’s ability to govern effectively and implement management reforms,” said Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and CEO.

Supporting that notion, the report says some “career civil servants simply are not going to attempt bold reorganizations on their own for fear of reprisals.”

Agreeing with that point, Todd V. Wells, executive director of the Federal Managers Association, said “while some career staff may view the leadership vacancies as an opportunity to assert themselves, without political cover and support, there is little reward and much risk should they be found to have exceeded their authority.”

Chronic budget uncertainty and workforce management issues, not necessarily related to appointees, remain major problems for agency managers, with the report citing “government workforce policies and practices mired in the past.”

They also are not optimistic about the ability of Trump’s team to achieve success. “When asked whether the administration’s push for change will have a significant impact on streamlining government, an overwhelming majority were skeptical. …” according to the report. “Only 16 percent felt positive change was ahead.”

Ann M. Ebberts, AGA’s chief executive, said by email that “it will take some time for any change to effect (read improve) agency efficiency.  At the same time, CFOs and the FM [federal management] community are not standing still waiting to see what changes will be made.  Improved technologies, for example, are also having an impact on the workforce — so it’s not just ‘one thing’ or one initiative that will help to improve agency efficiency, it is a collective set of actions.”

Despite the lack of political appointees and the reluctance of some managers to take bold action, the report also provided these comments regarding the current opportunity for change from the survey participants:

  • “The time is right for career staff to challenge the status quo and offer up reforms that have been pondered but may not have been voiced previously.”
  • “A unique opportunity now exists to offer reforms that cut across agencies. In the past, agencies typically were only allowed to propose reforms to programs under their specific purview.”
  • “The current situation represents real opportunity for career civil servants to develop strategic plans before most political appointees are in place.”
  • “A willingness to embrace disruption could expedite adoption of efficient technologies and innovations, such as shared services.”

Union disruption

Speaking of disruption, the largest federal union is once more experiencing it in its top leadership.

Eugene Hudson was in as the national-secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), then he was out, then he was in and now he’s out again.

In August, the union’s National Executive Council removed Hudson from his elected position after recommendations of a Committee of Investigation that charged him with improperly directing a staffer to send an email to union members that was critical of Trump after his electoral college victory.

Hudson, a candidate for AFGE President J. David Cox Sr.’s job, challenged the ouster and a federal-district court ordered him reinstated in November. AFGE then challenged that decision and won, leaving Hudson, as of Friday, again out of the job.

But this soap opera may not be over yet.

Hudson’s lawsuit against his ouster still has remaining counts the court must decide.

“This is a bump in the road that we would rather not have encountered, but Eugene’s claims are alive and well and we will continue to move forward with his effort to return to office,” said Justin Keating, Hudson’s lawyer, “and hold AFGE and Cox & Co. accountable for its illegal political power grab.”

David Borer, AFGE’s general counsel, has a different view: “We expect the remaining issues will also be resolved in AFGE’s favor. Our goal remains the same throughout the process: to enforce the rules that prohibit the use of union resources for campaign purposes and to ensure that the upcoming election for AFGE officers can be conducted fairly and free from election challenges.”

Read more:

Appeals agency backlog reflects Trump’s foot-dragging on appointments, hindering services

Despite Trump, federal employee morale improves under Trump

Court rejects ouster of No. 2 leader from largest federal union