The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden inherited a broken government. Attracting a new generation of civil servants won’t be easy.

Will scientists and other experts seek careers in government?

The Federal Trade Commission building in 2015. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on current challenges facing the federal bureaucracy from “Rethinking Our Democracy.” A joint initiative by the Center for Effective Government (@UChicagoCEG) at the University of Chicago and Protect Democracy (@protctdemocracy),“Rethinking our Democracy'' produces written series on key areas of institutional and democratic reform. All other articles can be found here.

Once a new U.S. president fills their Cabinet, most people stop paying attention to executive branch personnel. However, this time, it’s important. The Biden administration is confronting an unprecedented multitude of challenges — a global pandemic, rising economic inequality, a pending environmental catastrophe and a national reckoning with racial justice.

Addressing these challenges successfully will depend on whether the administration can harness the abilities of over 2 million federal civil servants and attract a new generation of leaders to resurrect the agencies within which they serve. Here’s the scope of the personnel challenges that President Biden faces.

Trump deepened the problems of the federal personnel system

The federal personnel system faced challenges before Donald Trump was elected president, but the situation grew far more serious during his administration. From the beginning, Trump targeted the “Deep State”— career professionals and experts he blamed for America’s alleged decline and claimed were working to thwart his priorities.

Trump wanted to slash the federal government. But federal agencies are doing just fine.

Trump’s willingness to arbitrarily shrink the federal workforce was unprecedented. He starved it of talent, resources and expertise, driving out career experts, scientists and diplomats, among others, and replacing them with corporate lobbyists, political donors and amateurs who further undermined faith in government. He even argued for dissolving the agency primarily responsible for administering federal personnel policies and programs, the Office of Personnel Management, and famously said he had no intention of filling top positions throughout government.

These efforts helped push 79,637 employees across the federal government to depart during the first nine months of Trump’s presidency, a 40 percent jump over the same period in the Obama administration. Trump’s approach culminated in what would have been the most significant attack on the federal civil service in generations — an executive order subjecting an unknown but very large number of career employees to effective removal at will. This order was revoked by President Biden, shortly after he entered office.

Biden inherited a broken government

When Biden came to office, the federal government showed the mark of the previous four years — high vacancies and a lot of lost institutional knowledge. This, combined with the policy demands of the pandemic, helps explain why a number of offices reported historically low levels of morale prior to Biden’s inauguration. Observers warn of an imminent “retirement tsunami,” with more than twice as many federal workers over the age of 60 as under the age of 30. (There are 19 times more information technology employees over 50 as there are under 30.)

There are several proposals for shoring up the personnel system, but they face substantial obstacles. Government’s reputation is badly tarnished. For their own political purposes, Republicans have caricatured federal employees as lazy, ineffective and wasteful. This is wholly inaccurate, but the narrative has stuck.

Civil servants are the last defense against a lawless president. It’s no wonder Trump didn’t trust them.

In a March 2019 poll ranking the reputations of America’s most visible companies and the federal government, the government ranked dead last. The result is a self-reinforcing cycle of government shutdowns and pay freezes that further frustrates Americans’ expectations of how the government should perform. It’s no surprise that fewer graduates are pursuing opportunities within the federal government. It doesn’t help that the federal hiring process is long and cumbersome. (On average, it takes 106 days to complete.)

Biden administration is taking steps to change this

The Biden administration’s first budget request includes proposed hiring surges at the departments hardest hit by reductions during the Trump administration, rolls back proposed benefits cuts and includes a modest pay increase for federal civilian employees. At the same time, to attract recently departed federal employees, the administration finalized a rule allowing agencies to rehire qualifying candidates at a higher grade. The Office of Personnel Management recently issued regulations to make it easier to pay and hire interns who are still in college or graduate school.

The administration is also working with organizations like the Day One Project to utilize flexible hiring authorities that allow federal agencies to bring needed experts into government on a temporary basis to meet specific needs. And agencies are trying to make it easier to find people with the skills for critical jobs by integrating subject matter experts into their hiring processes.

All this may not be sufficient to attract young people. Government should have a competitive advantage in attracting young people who want to change the world — it provides more and earlier opportunities to address pressing social problems than the private sector. There are nongovernment initiatives underway to improve college students’ awareness of these opportunities and better prepare them — like the Partnership for Public Service’s Call to Serve Network and the Volcker Alliance’s Next Generation Service Corps.

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Agencies that would like to attract younger employees will need to consider their internal cultures and commitment to diversity and inclusion. Biden’s executive order prioritizing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the federal workforce requires agencies to complete their DEIA self-assessments this fall, focusing on work that was essentially abandoned during the Trump administration.

Federal agencies will have to contend with some long-standing challenges. While people of color and women are well-represented in the lower ranks of the civil service, they still lack a clear path to senior-level positions. In the senior executive service — the elite managers who serve just below top political appointees — the most recent data available shows self-identified minorities are disproportionately underrepresented, representing just 21.1 percent in fiscal 2018 (compared with 37.7 percent of the federal workforce overall). There is a similar pattern for self-identified women, who represent just one-third of employees in the senior executive service, compared with 43 percent overall.

The Biden administration has shown itself to be committed to diversity among political appointees — the Cabinet and the administration’s first 1,500 appointees are the most diverse in history — suggesting that this administration may also demonstrate the same commitment in confronting the multiple factors responsible for the difference at the highest ranks.

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Rudy Mehrbani is a senior adviser at Democracy Fund, which is a TMC funder. He served as assistant to the president and director of presidential personnel and as associate White House counsel in the Obama administration.