27 October 2023

Civil Servants Under Trump

Welcome back. When blogging, I’ve generally stayed away from certain political topics to avoid substituting my bias for the studies I review. But having spent 20 years as a federal civil servant (prior to the Trump administration), I couldn’t let this one pass: Walking the Moral Tightrope: Federal Civil Servants’ Loyalties, Caution, and Resistance Under the Trump Administration.

The study, by the Chair of Hamilton College’s Sociology Department together with an independent scholar, addressed the question, “How did mid- and high-level career civil servants across agencies experience and respond to the Trump administration?”

If you recall, the Trump administration and its supporters were quick to decry the federal civil service as a “deep state” thwarting the president’s agenda. They sought to curtail career employees’ workplace protections, severely cut certain agencies’ funding, and in some cases, undermine or alter agency missions.

Excerpt from National Federation of Federal Employees news release in response to administration’s vow to purge workers insufficiently loyal to President Trump.
Study Elements
The researchers conducted three waves of semi-structured, in-depth interviews, 127 in all. They tracked respondents’ experiences, speaking with employed and former mid- and high-level career civil servants during the beginning, middle and end of the Trump administration (March--August 2017, June--November 2018, and December 2019--March 2020).

The respondents, located in Washington, D.C., and six regional offices across the country, worked in nearly all executive branch agencies. The largest number of interviews were in the Environmental Protection Agency and Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice and State because the researchers sought to oversample the most contentious and highest-ranking positions.

Interviewed mid- and high-level civil servants under Trump by agency; work experience in legislative and judicial branch offices not included (Table A1 from www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/725313).

Survey Findings
They found that most civil servants largely sought to comply at work, bounded by their loyalties to acting appropriately within the scope of their mandates. This was despite repeatedly reporting uniquely toxic, unpredictable and fear-based political leaders. These leaders rendered long-standing grievance and dissent mechanisms politicized and personalized, making them riskier and less compatible with civil service norms of loyalty and non-partisanship.

As the administration adopted increasingly repressive political tactics, it fundamentally altered the sense of what was morally right and wrong in structuring civil servants’ assessments. Over time, these concerns led many to engage in practices, which might be characterized as forms of resistance.

Examples are continuing some of their agency’s original initiatives without disclosing it to leadership; attending protests; using their professional expertise in civic work and local organizing efforts; and leaking to the media, which for the vast majority of respondents, was a line they would not cross.

By the end of the study, one-fifth of respondents had not just moved to a different office but left the federal government.

Wrap Up
The study of mid- and high-ranking career civil servants navigating the Trump administration revealed a complex picture of a moral and ethical tightrope stretched between two poles, one toeing the line, the other resisting within a deep state. Yet few if any of the respondents rested on either pole or exhibited extreme behavior.

Instead, they searched for ways to uphold multiple, often competing, professional, institutional and ethical commitments while avoiding violations of the Hatch act (restricts political activity) or putting themselves at risk of political retribution.

They worried about acting in complicity with an increasingly repressive regime but seemed to worry more about violating professional and institutional norms of loyalty to agency, mission and government. Most expressed alarm at the potential for harm to the government and public posed by the administration.

Overall, the study raises concerns about the vulnerability of the US government to further democratic backsliding and deterioration under a future more competent autocratic leader. Thanks for stopping by.

Study of civil servants in Trump administration in American Journal of Sociology: www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/725313
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/995843


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