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January 5, 2017

Donald Trump's PATCO Moment

by Joseph Sullivan | In The News | Op/Ed
  The Hill

Early in his presidency, Ronald Reagan had to face down the Professional Air Traffic Controller’s Organization (PATCO) in order to send a message and gain some control over Federal workers. Donald Trump is now having his own PATCO moment in the form of the Department of Energy’s obstruction tactics.

His transition team sent a questionnaire that asked for specific information as to how some of the people whom he will soon supervise spend their time and how they feel about the work that they do. The employees who will soon report to him have refused to answer. It really is as simple as that. The boss wants to know what his employees are doing in their paid time at work and where they think they are going with their projects. The employees are, in effect, telling him, “sorry boss, we won’t tell you that because we might not like what you do with the information.”

The Trump transition team may be trying to downplay the issue. On Wednesday Dec. 12, a spokesman told CNN that "The questionnaire was not authorized or part of our standard protocol. The person who sent it has been properly counseled." Maybe so. Nevertheless, a refusal to answer questions is unacceptable short of a Fifth Amendment situation.

It is not unusual for presidential transition teams to ask for this kind of information. After all, they are preparing for a transfer of power to new management – for senior people in the executive branch, especially the president, are executive managers of large bureaucracies. The newcomers can’t function as managers if they are kept in the dark.

However, a furor has arisen because in this case the request included names of employees involved in certain working groups and in attendance at certain conferences on climate change and carbon, along with details of the meetings themselves. This has resulted in claims by employees that they feel intimidated, and fear that their jobs and the potential of their work to the advance the safety of the planet will be lost. The words “purge,” “witch hunt,” and “McCarthy,” are being used. Well and good. It is fair and reasonable in a democratic society for people to speak up and attempt to bring political pressure and public opinion to bear on officer holders in order to affect policy. In fact, scientists and activists who truly believe in the importance of the DOE’s climate work would seem to have a moral obligation to fight to protect it.

However, everything goes off the tracks when employees refuse to accurately and fully report to their boss on what they are doing. A chief executive — any chief executive from a barbeque stand to Ford Motor, to the President of the United States — has an absolute right and need to be informed on matters within the organization. What employees do on their own time is no business of the President or any other CEO, so long as it is legal and doesn’t discredit the organization (fairly standard employment contract language). However, the Trump team didn’t ask about private time — they asked about what people did while they were on government time.

However, DOE is refusing to give names and possibly other information. Spokesman Eban Burnham-Snyder said in an email, "We will be forthcoming with all publicly available information with the transition team. We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team." In about five weeks, that answer will qualify as insubordination, plain and simple. The President, like any CEO, is entitled not just to publicly available information, but to complete information.

DOE might claim that because the inauguration has not taken place, there is no requirement to respond in full to Donald Trump. That might even be true, but given the five -week timeframe, it is also irrelevant.  As employees of the government, administrators of DOE have taken an insupportable position to make a political point. In doing so, they are behaving in a way that would be unacceptable in any employee anywhere.

Once inaugurated, President Trump cannot possibly allow this obstruction to stand, because it would set a precedent that Federal employees could withhold information on any matter or program that they wanted to protect. Under those circumstance, there could simply be no normal governance at all in the whole gigantic Federal system. Bureaucrats would without consequence simply report what they wanted their superiors to hear.

In short, the present DOE obstruction goes beyond politics and right to the heart of governance and management. If Donald Trump does not respond firmly, he will permanently compromise his ability to manage the mammoth entity for which he is now responsible.

Joseph Sullivan is a management consultant who has been a CEO and a member of 13 corporate boards of directors, and is an advisor to the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI).


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