President-elect Joe Biden speaks Tuesday at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del.

President-elect Joe Biden speaks Tuesday at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. Carolyn Kaster / AP

Biden's Transition Has Focused on Civil Service Issues as Familiar Faces Spearhead Efforts

Transition working groups on government management topics identify top priorities as Biden seeks to have quick impact.

President-elect Biden’s transition team has been working for months on policy initiatives affecting agency operations and the federal workforce, with at least some of that work spearheaded by individuals with deep ties to those issues. 

Biden’s team during the campaign set up a series of working groups to offer advice and implementation guidance on an array of topics, according to several individuals involved with or briefed on the process, some of which touched on civil service reform and federal management issues. Those included groups focused on “21st century government,” labor and workforce issues, and whistleblowers. That pre-election work is ongoing, and the transition team on Tuesday announced its agency review teams that will eventually deploy to agencies to work with employees there on establishing and accomplishing Biden administration goals. 

Several governmentwide management agencies will receive their own review teams. Martha Coven will head up the team for the Office of Management and Budget, where she formerly served as an appointee during the Obama administration. Kiran Ahuja will lead the team at the Office of Personnel Management, where she served as chief of staff for two years under Obama. Katy Kale is in charge of the team going to the General Services Administration. Kale held several positions in the Obama administration, including as a White House aide and chief of staff at GSA. 

In the weeks and months leading up to the election, the Biden transition team—led by former Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., for whom a key piece of transition law is named—has solicited specific policy goals from former government officials, academics and labor representatives. It has sought objectives it can enact on Biden's first day and others to prioritize within his first 100 days. The working groups organized information in forms that listed policy changes, rationales, agencies that would drive the work, how the Trump administration handled the topics, the impact on marginalized groups and what Biden has said about the issue at hand. 

The Biden team was looking both backward at what Trump initiatives it would be able to unwind and what new policies it could implement to send a message to federal workers they would no longer be antagonized. Biden has repeatedly stressed that he will rely on the expertise of career employees, seeking to juxtapose his approach to the less trusting one adopted by President Trump. 

“There was an extensive effort put into either reviewing the executive orders that had been put in place the last four years and also thinking about what executive orders could be issued very very quickly to start working on pressing matters,” said a former OPM director who informally advised the Biden team and asked not to be named to discuss internal deliberations. 

Leading the outreach efforts from inside the Biden transition, according to multiple people familiar with the matter, are Julia Clark and Rob Shriver. Clark is a former federal union official and general counsel at the Federal Labor Relations Authority, and under Trump was the Democratic nominee to the Merit Systems Protection Board. Her nomination is still pending. Shriver, another former union official, served as a senior appointee at OPM under Obama. Neither Clark nor Shriver, nor the Biden transition team, responded to requests for comment. 

Among the issues that participants were hopeful Biden would address quickly are Trump’s executive orders restricting the powers of federal employee unions and making it easier to fire civil servants, unwinding the president’s efforts to give agencies broad discretion in stripping employees of civil service protections by converting them to politically appointed positions, and making prompt appointments to the Merit Systems Protection Board that currently has no quorum and a backlog of thousands of cases. Other proposals involved strengthening whistleblower laws through both legislation and executive action. Some of those issues will require more effort than just a stroke of Biden’s pen. 

Other advisers from whom the Biden team solicited feedback pushed for the now president-elect to remove Trump’s appointees at key positions, such as the Federal Service Impasses Panel and the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Labor groups suggested certain collective bargaining agreements the Trump administration unilaterally imposed on workforces should be reopened, while labor-management partnership forums should be reinstated

While several officials who spoke with Government Executive praised the Biden team for its outreach and concern for the minutiae of government, some of those familiar with the Biden team’s preparations suggested the president-elect and his advisers may just be paying lip service and were hesitant to give credit until they see follow through. Jason Briefel, a partner at Shaw, Bransford and Roth who works on federal issues including as part of the Senior Executive Association’s leadership team, said the Biden administration must tackle “endemic civil service issues” in order to successfully roll out its programs. 

“Civil servants don’t have the tools they need to execute,” Briefel said, suggesting the Biden administration should avoid the trap of allowing career federal workers to operate as scapegoats before Republicans in Congress. Still, he praised the incoming administration’s approach over the last several months: “There’s definitely a cadre of folks in that group who were thinking about the things that need to be thought about.”

Both informal and formal advisers to the transition said Biden’s team had focused on the “decimation” of the federal workforce during the Trump years and was committed to finding ways to rebuild it. A lot of experts with institutional knowledge had fled federal service, its thinking went, and the incoming administration is looking for avenues to use various hiring authorities to get them back in the door. 

“There was a commitment to gaining an understanding of how the government operates, what tools and levers are available to a new admin to quickly leverage to make the kind of impact they really need to on these impact issues,” the former OPM director said. 

While Biden’s agency review teams are now in place, they remain in a holding pattern as the General Services Administration has not yet declared a winner in the presidential election. That “ascertainment” must take place before Biden’s team can deploy to agencies and receive a new tranche of funding. Still, the Biden transition said on Tuesday its work continues “full steam ahead” and its teams will continue meeting with former officials, think tanks, labor groups and other groups. After GSA Administrator Emily Murphy makes an ascertainment, it said, the teams will work directly with agencies “to ensure the incoming Biden-Harris administration is able to effectively achieve the policy goals of the president and vice president-elect.”

“The agency review process will help lay the foundation for meeting these challenges on day one,” Kaufman said in a statement. “The work of the agency review teams is critical for protecting national security, addressing the ongoing public health crisis, and demonstrating that America remains the beacon of democracy for the world.”