The federal workforce hiring freeze executive order

President Donald Trump has begun the first week of his term by signing a series of executive orders, including one that freezes federal hiring.

LAC Federal Deputy Director Jocelyn McNamara addressed this topic already, when she shared her thoughts on President-elect Trump’s 100 Day Action Plan. Now that the 100 days have begun, this will be an update, including feedback from some of our people who are in the midst of the situation.

No filling of current federal government job openings or creating new ones

The early impact of the new Republican administration’s activities has been troubling, both for federal agencies and contractors like LAC Federal that provide professional services to the federal government. President Trump signed the order to freeze federal hiring on January 23, which says that “no vacant positions existing at noon on January 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances.”

As for those circumstances, all we know is that military personnel are exempt. And according to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, the freeze would apply “except when necessary to meet national or public security responsibilities.”

The exception details remain to be settled, but in the meantime, we are witnessing:

  • A great deal of doubt and uncertainty regarding the new administration’s stance on managed services government work to contractors.
  • Potentially devastating impacts to federal employee morale, which could lead to high rates of turnover and result in a loss of expertise and institutional memory. According to a pre-inauguration poll conducted by the Government Business Council/GovExec.com, less than two-thirds of the federal workforce is firmly committed to staying on the job.
  • A new sense that this administration is fundamentally different from previous administrations in their view of federal responsibilities and the federal workforce.

One of our senior project managers shared this observation:

“I do notice an emotional shift at this federal facility. In the first weeks after the election, people seemed to be in mourning. They talked in hushed tones, if at all, and kept their heads down, afraid to make eye contact, afraid to acknowledge what had just happened, and—as a result of that—what might happen going forward. While that mood has subsided, people are awaiting new political appointees with more than a bit of trepidation.”

Federal hiring freezes have been implemented before, by both Republican and Democratic administrations, including Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. But today’s situation is different. We are witnessing a more ideological commitment to shrinking government, with public discussion about closing entire agencies and divisions.

Limits on hiring alternatives like contracting and managed services

The current order constrains the ability for agencies to turn to contractors to bridge resource gaps so they can get necessary work done and their missions accomplished in a timely fashion. Trump’s order includes this line: “Contracting outside the Government to circumvent the intent of this memorandum shall not be permitted.” 

Federal agencies may not be able to replace lost positions by farming the work out to contractors. Beyond this, it’s not entirely clear what this order means in practice, or if contractors involved in national or public security work would be exempt. It might end up meaning fewer contracting options and more obstacles to hiring outside help.

Potential consequences of the Trump administration’s hiring freeze

While the stereotype of a federal worker may be a paper-shuffling bureaucrat in Washington D.C., the truth is that federal government employees work in every state of the country and abroad. It’s estimated that 85% of federal workers are located outside of the Washington, D.C. metro area. The work they do is diverse, covering a wide range of functions and tasks. A hiring freeze could backfire by reducing efficiency and service levels and creating backlogs that could end up being more costly in the long-run.

Some experts are questioning the need for a freeze, and whether it will produce the sought-after results. To begin, the federal workforce has not seen explosive growth, especially when you consider the size of the country’s population and economy. Richard G. Thissen, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, says that the current workforce is about ten percent smaller now than it was in 1967, when the U.S. had 130 million fewer people.

Others believe that the federal workforce needs changing beyond its size. Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service, said in a Washington Post interview:

“There’s real need for change in the federal government, and this is not the kind of change that’s constructive. You don’t freeze into place what is already not what you want.”

Issue of federal workers nearing retirement

One of the existing situations that Stier refers to is the age of the federal workforce, which is heavily weighted toward employees over 60 and under-represented by people under the age of 30. The retirement issue and loss of expertise of a large portion of the existing workforce has already been noted, long before the administration change. It’s a valid concern, especially if those workers can’t be replaced, yet it’s one where contractors can play a valuable role.

The government’s reliance on data-driven measures is growing as a cost-saving measure and as the new way of doing business. Commerce Secretary-nominee Wilbur Ross, who would oversee the Census, Patent and Trademark Office and agencies like NOAA, where LAC Federal has employees working, is on record as wanting to modernize and increase data collection and analysis. Contractors like LAC Federal are able to recruit and retain young talent with the skills in information services, technology and management that will be needed to accomplish this goal.

Federal worker concerns beyond the hiring freeze

Research is one of the most important functions throughout the network of government agencies and departments, as the collection and dissemination of data is a critical mission. Statements and actions regarding these functions are being viewed in many circles as a greater concern than the hiring freeze.

The new administration has restricted public communication at several agencies, including the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) arm of the Department of Agriculture. LAC Federal has several employees at the National Agricultural Library, which is part of ARS. While the memo was subsequently walked back, ARS employees were ordered to cease publication of “outward facing” releases, including social media updates.

We should remember that it’s common for communications and other daily activities to be affected during administration changeovers, particularly when it includes a party change. Every new administration has its own priorities and policy positions.

Meanwhile, all of us at LAC Federal will continue to do the work we’ve been hired to do for all our government clients, to the best of our professional capabilities.

Resources:

Christopher Lao-Scott

Christopher Lao-Scott

Client Engagement Manager, LAC Federal
Christopher Lao-Scott
Christopher Lao-Scott

Latest posts by Christopher Lao-Scott (see all)