Out For Blood in the Executive Branch

Who will control the Office of Special Counsel? Will a new political appointee be able to make substantive changes or will the existing interest groups have their way with him? Blood is being drawn; the pitched battle is underway; the media loves it.

Having worked for a few government agencies as an employee, and a number of agencies as a consultant on various human resources projects, I had the opportunity to experience the federal workforce culture up close and personal.

For most federal employees, a change of administation may not bring immediate changes to their daily work lives. And, for most of us, that is a good thing. People don’t like change. A routine may be frequently boring but having a secure job with rules (written and unwritten) that everyone understands and can choose to follow provides a sense of well-being and contentment. Even if a new employee doesn’t like some of what happens, it becomes familiar. The pay and benefits aren’t bad and the work can be interesting.

But what happens when there is change to a program that one has worked with for years or decades? What if a new boss is assigned as a result of an election and the new boss doesn’t like the way the office is being run, the policies of the agency and may even think that the employees who have been working there for years are not the best ones to get the job done?

When employees feel insecure, they will attack. Most federal employees won’t issue press releases and don’t want their name in a newspaper article. But they will talk to reporters, interest groups, and file complaints–anonymously if possible.

No one wants to stick his head too high when things aren’t going well because the bullets that are flying around may hit the person who is the most visible.

But anonymity doesn’t mean a lack of fear or an unwillingness to attack. A political appointee who comes to Washington, D.C. and decides to make major changes to an agency’s culture, policies or getting the work done may be in for a fight.

I have never been a political appointee. I am not sure why people want the job. Some of them may be naive. They see a chance to "make a difference" in government or in American culture. They see a chance to reform government according to a personal or political philosophy different from what has gone on before. Others see a chance to have a good paying job that will serve them well in getting an even better paying job after being in the public spotlight for several years. And, ever the optimist, some will make a difference or get a higher paying job in the long run.

It is fair to say that if the American public was polled on agencies known to most voters, the recognition factor for the Office of Special Counsel would be toward the bottom of the list.

It is a small agency with about 100 employees. The person heading the agency is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Its job is to protect federal government whistleblowers from reprisal, evaluate complaints sent in by federal employees about certain types of allegations from within an agency and to enforce Hatch Act violations.

In effect, it’s a small agency with a mission that is relatively obscure. It gets most of its publicity from telling local politicians they can’t legally hold an elected office because of the Hatch Act.

The current Special Counsel is Scott Bloch. Most of us in the federal community were not familiar with his prior background. He has not worked for a federal union, for a law firm that has made its reputation advocating for federal employees and is not part of the Washington, DC political establishment.

He is an attorney and was the former counsel for the justice Department’s Task Force for Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

Most of us have heard of Scott Bloch in recent weeks. He has been vilified in press releases and news articles for doing a variety of terrible things including reassigning federal employees, questioning and changing the mission of the Office of Special Counsel, hiring new employees with different backgrounds and from outside the Washington, DC area and getting rid of too many cases without having reviewed them properly.

The barrage of press releases, articles and general attacks on the job he has done even made the Wall Street Journal last week. That article prompted a new round of press releases with headlines about the FBI being called in to investigate the agency’s policies and practices and contending the agency is enforcing the Hatch Act with a politcal agenda in mind.

No doubt, the new Special Counsel took on a number of ingrained political interests when he questioned the mission of the agency with regard to investigating complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation. And, when he took action to transfer employees to Detroit, even more people were upset.

As most of us know, politics is a contact sport. Scott Bloch has taken on strong interest groups in the bureaucracy and the political environment of Washington, DC. While, in theory, the civil service exists to help an administration implement its policies and programs, the reality is that the bureaucracy is a power unto itself. Mess with the bureaucracy and an outsider trying to run a federal agency will find out where much of the real power resides.

Scott Bloch is in the middle of a political fight. We can assume he knows what he is doing and is trying to change the culture and policies of one small government agency but he may have underestimated how strong the bureaucratic political establishment can be when it feels its own interests are threatened.

It’s a classic DC political power struggle being played out on a national scale. No doubt Bloch has drawn blood in some quarters or we would not see the public reaction from those who are threatened. The stakes have been raised to a level where it is now apparently a fight to the political death for one side or the other. Will the winner be the new political appointee riding in on a steed from Kansas or the courtiers protecting their long-held political interests in the environs of the Washington bureaucracy?

As of this writing, the outcome is still in doubt. But the media loves a good fight with lots of juicy headlines. This battle is likely to produce both.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47