90% of DOE’s political jobs are unfilled

Source: Umair Irfan, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, August 28, 2017

The Department of Energy has a staffing problem.

Eight months into the Trump administration, DOE has just two Congress-confirmed appointees and three pending nominees, out of 22 political positions at the agency.

Without enough people at the helm, many of the more than 13,000 civil servants at the sprawling $30 billion agency can’t fully commit to their work, and some have their eyes on the exit, according to observers.

“I’ve talked to many current DOE career employees, and there is no question that the morale at the agency has taken a hit in the last eight months,” Jeff Navin, a former acting chief of staff at DOE under President Obama and now a partner at Boundary Stone Partners, said in an email.

“The career staff saw the dysfunction during the transition, and then they saw the draconian budget request from the administration,” Navin added. “They’re wondering whether they want to spend the next 3 ½ years of their lives working at the agency.”

DOE did not respond to requests for comment.

As the nation’s largest funder of physical sciences research and with jurisdiction over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, DOE has a high demand for technical and scientific expertise.

However, sometimes the stodgy federal hiring process makes it challenging to bring in needed scientists, policy experts and managers, even in the best of circumstances.

The Trump administration’s proposed cuts to DOE and its ponderous pace in filling vacancies is making this problem worse, undermining the appeal for prospective recruits, according to officials who worked in the past administration.

“I think these days, with the budgets being so tenuous, I would say it’s not been conducive in terms of getting people from the marketplace,” said Charles McConnell, who served as assistant secretary for fossil energy under Obama and is now executive director of the Energy and Environment Initiative at Rice University.

DOE has several tiers of employees.

Civil servants are the backbone of the department. They handle much of the day-to-day work and provide continuity between administrations on important projects, such as nuclear waste cleanup.

Then there are political staffers who lay out the White House’s policies at DOE. They come and go with electoral changes.

At the top of the hierarchy are political appointees. These officials are nominated by the president and confirmed by Congress, facing some of the toughest scrutiny and the longest hiring process.

“It took me three months, and that was considered borderline warp speed,” McConnell said. “It’s was about half as long as what I view as normal.”

He noted that taking the job after working for three decades in the private fossil fuel sector required a pay cut. It also required an FBI background check, liquidating stock holdings and severing all ties with past employers.

In addition, political appointees typically resign when there is a change in the White House, but they aren’t allowed to start a job hunt while they’re still working for the government.

“You have to, by definition, quit and then begin your search for your next job,” McConnell said.

He added that this process can scare away some good people, but it also acts like a sieve that results in employees who are more motivated by a service ethic and dedicated to the mission of the department.

The hiring hurdles seem to be even higher under Trump.

“In some ways, our federal government is going through something very usual and customary for industry and very unusual for people in Washington, and that’s a reorganization,” McConnell said. “My view from where I sit is it’s happening far too slow, and it’s a bit of a question as far as what’s the strategic intent.”

Over the years, DOE has created side doors to bypass some of these challenges. Through fellowship programs and fixed-term hires, DOE has brought on staff to deal with specific technical or policy issues. They include developing better power electronics and helping the United States negotiate with other countries on climate change.

Daniel Noll, who was a fellow in DOE’s now-shuttered Office of International Climate and Clean Energy, explained that he joined the agency straight out of graduate school on a short-term basis. He helped develop a framework for sharing clean energy technologies with other countries.

He was hired under the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Fellowship.

“It was different from a contract or a civil service position in that it was this other type of mechanism which was a lot less bureaucratic than the normal federal hiring process,” said Noll. “My actual [hiring] interview was very fast and efficient.”

The Trump administration has shut down DOE’s international climate office. Other programs, like the high-tech research division, called the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, are also in the crosshairs.

ARPA-E made fixed-term hires a key part of its brand, setting definite benchmarks and encouraging turnover in rapidly evolving technology-focused areas, like lightweight batteries and more durable solar cells. The White House budget proposal aims to shut down the $330 million operation.

With many of these side doors closing, the tedious federal hiring process is once again becoming the main path to a job at DOE. And while many former staffers don’t expect most of the proposed cuts to occur, they could still send a chill through the prospective pool of scientists, engineers and analysts.

Nonetheless, former officials said that working at DOE was an important step in their careers and they wear their government service with pride.

“It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s not for those looking for some sort of ticket to stardom,” McConnell said of working at DOE. “I will say, I wouldn’t give back a day that I spent in that job, and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity.”