Inside How Biden Is Learning About Federal Agencies, Both Officially and Unofficially
The president-elect transition's team is now gleaning information from federal workers through multiple channels.
After the Trump administration greenlit the final stage of the transition process earlier this week, federal employees are now engaging directly with President-elect Biden’s team on issues related to the federal workforce specifically and agency management generally.
The transition team is no longer relying on workarounds to get information on the goings on at agencies, according to those in contact with Biden officials, as it can now engage directly with career workers. That process was delayed after the General Services Administration refused to issue an official ascertainment that Biden had won the election, with Administrator Emily Murphy finally relenting on Monday.
The transition team met with union staff representing federal employees, for example, but could not meet directly with the local chapters headed by federal workers. That changed Monday evening and the transition has since set up meetings directly with federal workers, both through the official transition channels and through the labor groups.
The time between the election and GSA's ascertainment was not wasted, however, as Biden’s agency review teams met with former government officials to help them prepare for navigating various bureaucracies and plan for implementing the new administration's agenda. Jacque Simon, director of public policy at the American Federation of Government Employees, said her team had meetings every day with Biden’s and has briefed virtually every agency review team.
Various labor and outside groups have been pitching the Biden team in recent weeks on federal personnel and management issues, according to individuals involved in those conversations, who said the transition officials have listened intently to the proposals. The respect from Biden’s team marked a dramatic shift from the tone of their working relationships with the Trump administration over the last four years, the individuals said, noting Trump officials often took an adversarial approach with federal employees and those who advocate for them.
Still, the incoming administration has yet to make any promises about whether it will adopt any of the groups’ priorities. The transition team has taken a particular interest in Trump’s Schedule F executive order that would give agencies broad discretion to roll back civil service protections for certain employees, asking insiders how they expect the Trump administration to implement it in the coming weeks. Transition officials are concerned about who might be targeted for easier firing as well as how the Trump administration could use the order to burrow current political appointees into agencies. The president-elect's team is asking how they should respond if Trump takes broad action with the new authorities before Biden’s inauguration.
Transition officials have so far treated the meetings primarily as listening sessions, asking some questions but offering little visibility into the administration's future plans. The Office of Personnel Management review team, which includes reviews of workforce agencies such as the Office of Special Counsel and the Merit Systems Protection Board, was scheduled to meet with the Federal Workers Alliance Wednesday afternoon.
The Defense Department on Tuesday offered some insight into how the official transition meetings are taking place. Biden’s team met with career officials virtually to go over non-career political appointee positions at Defense, succession planning materials and to share “interim transition books.” Those books provided information on organizational structures, budget and mission, according to Thomas Muir, who is leading the department's transition efforts. While the Pentagon announced on Tuesday it is cutting back from an 80% in-person workforce goal to a 40% goal due to concern over the spike in COVID-19 cases, Biden officials will soon receive office space that allows for physical distancing and videoconferencing for both classified and unclassified information. Current Defense officials will provide Biden’s team with a Pentagon tour next week and the two groups will proceed to meet daily. Some members of Biden’s team will report physically to the Pentagon, while others will continue to join meetings virtually.
Biden’s team will sign non-disclosure agreements and subsequently have access to classified and other non-public information. It will also be able to submit inquiries to Defense officials, request deep dives into particular subjects and have full access to operational plans, Muir said. Defense officials said political appointees at the department would offer assistance in the transition process, but it would be driven by career employees.
“We're looking forward to continuing the process with the Biden-Harris Transition Team in the near future and throughout the transition period,” Muir said.
All told, agency review teams had made contact or met with more than 50 agencies, Jen Psaki, a senior advisor with the transition, said on Wednesday.
“The reception from career civil servants has been professional and welcoming,” said Kate Bedingfield, deputy campaign manager and communications director.
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