Policy Change Hinted for Department of Energy in Questionnaire and New Secretary

A questionnaire and new Secretary of Energy are creating consternation among federal employees. Change is in the air. What will be the impact on federal workers?

There is no doubt that change is in the air at the Department of Energy (DOE) as the Trump administration prepares to take over the reins of government in 2017. There are likely to be significant changes in policies and changes within the federal bureaucracy.

No doubt, many people throughout the federal workforce are concerned about changes under a new administration that may impact their career. Many of these concerns will prove to be unfounded.

Change at the Department of Energy

The Trump transition team has circulated a questionnaire at the agency. It requests information asking for information on people who have attended climate change conferences and emails and documents associated with the conferences.

The questionnaire was addressed to specific offices within Energy such as the Energy Information Administration (EIA). It also asked questions about specific organizations such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has been nominated to be the new Secretary of Energy. He was governor of the state for 14 years. When he left office in January 2015, Texas was the world’s 3rd largest provider of natural gas and its 8th largest producer of crude oil. While he was in office, Texas also became the nation’s biggest producer of wind energy.

While running for president in 2012, Perry proposed eliminating the Department of Energy which may make employees at DOE more nervous about their future.

The questionnaire probably signifies more emphasis on nuclear power. For example, the questionnaire asks, “Does DOE have a plan to resume the Yucca Mountain license proceedings?” It also asks, “Are there any statutory restrictions to restarting the Yucca Mountain project?”

The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository was designated by law to be a deep geological repository storage facility for spent nuclear fuel and other high level radioactive waste. Federal funding for the project was canceled in 2011.

Potential Impact on Employees

Several questions on the questionnaire probably indicate an intent to reduce the size of the agency. That is not a surprise for those who have followed the Trump campaign and statements he made running for president.

For example, the document asks questions about existing vacancies and, “Is the number of assistant secretaries set by statute?”

One question requests recommendations on where to cut if the agency was required to implement a reduction of “10 percent budget over the next four fiscal years.”

What has probably created the most immediate concerns in the agency is questions requesting names of employees who attended meetings on “Social Cost of Carbon” or “Conference of the Parties”  (which addresses the topic of climate change). It is not clear why the names of participants were requested but, expecting the worst, some employees may have been concerned their jobs were at risk under the new administration.

The agency has refused to release the requested names.

Interest groups have assumed the questionnaire is bad news for some federal employees. A Democrat from Massachusetts, Senator Ed Markey, publicized a letter to the president-elect warning that any punishment of employees carrying out Obama administration policies “would be tantamount to an illegal modern-day political witch hunt, and would have a profoundly chilling impact on our dedicated federal workforce.”

Possible Actions to Implement Change

There is little doubt there will be a change of priorities at some agencies, including the Department of Energy. Federal employees have legal protections that would prevent the wholesale, immediate dismissal from federal employment.

What is more likely is that a hiring freeze of federal employees would occur at the agency. A hiring freeze has been cited as an action the new administration would institute during the first 100 days of the new administration.

An agency can also take a reduction-in-force (RIF) action to reduce the size of a federal workforce. This process is a cumbersome, bureaucratic, time-consuming administrative nightmare.

An agency is required to use the RIF procedures when certain events occur. These include an employee facing separation or downgrading because of a reorganization, lack of work, shortage of funds or an insufficient personnel ceiling.

As the questionnaire implied, there can be budget cuts in an agency to be implemented over a period of time. As budget cuts are implemented, there will be changes.

A reduction in expenses and changing priorities can lead to several possibilities. A hiring freeze for organizations, transferring employees, and lack of career opportunities are all possibilities.

If Congress were so inclined, it could also dismantle the agency and reassign programs to other agencies or eliminate programs. That is difficult to accomplish and is unlikely to occur.

While reorganizations and a change in priorities is common in agencies, eliminating a cabinet level agency is virtually unheard of. There are too many vested interests in agencies and many of these organizations have significant influence in Congress.

Federal Employees Are Critical to a New Administration

There is no doubt there will be change in agencies such as DOE. Federal employees will be critical to implementing those changes.

While current events seem unique, significant changes have occurred under previous administrations.

Despite the fear of change and what it may bring, the biggest concerns usually dissipate when the reality of a new administration sinks in. An imminent change is also a great recruiting tool for organizations that stand to benefit by positing possible changes unlikely to occur.

The federal government is not designed for rapid change. A new administration depends on the expertise and competence of federal employees. New appointees do not have the depth of expertise or experience as civil workers have.

When changes occur, they will happen over time. Because of their expertise, federal employees will impact and design most of the changes that do occur.

Employees will have time to seek other jobs if that appears to be desirable. Job protections are in place to prevent quick elimination of a person’s employment. Many of the fears being expressed will dissipate as the new administration takes control and new appointees learn more about the agency and its programs.

In another four or eight years, there will be a new administration.  Federal employees may be going through the same process again and there will again be fear of change. Most federal employees will still be working for Uncle Sam until they decide to leave or retire.

Trump Transition Questionaire to Department of Energy

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