Senior federal officials from the Trump administration said Schedule F, the dormant policy to make thousands of federal employees at-will, is a solution to lacking accountability, not a reversion to the spoils system, as its critics have said.

Relying on data from a governmentwide annual survey, the officials who defended the policy said the government’s own workers have identified inadequate processes to deal with poor performers. Schedule F would restore that, they said in a panel discussion hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration on Thursday.

Schedule F would have moved employees in policymaking or confidential positions into appointed positions, meaning there would be fewer barriers to firing them.

“This is really just an attempt to address one of the chief concerns that federal employees themselves have articulated year after year in [the survey], and that’s the question that says: in my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot, or will not, improve,” said Michael Rigas, the acting director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during the Trump administration.

In 2016, 29% percent answered in the affirmative. That number has grown to 42% in 2022, according to the latest version of the survey.

Schedule F never went into effect, though some agencies went as far as identifying which positions would be eligible for reclassification. The move faced fierce opposition from Democrats and federal employee unions, who said having a class of employees with limited employment protections raised due process concerns.

Now, as several Republican candidates for the presidency have said they support Schedule F or something like it, the question posed to panelists was whether that’s the right approach, and if it is, what might it look like in 2024 and beyond.

Mary Guy, a professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, said it was naive to assume such a plan would simply “clean up” the legitimate management challenges federal supervisors may face in evaluating employees’ performance.

“Government is not business in any way — not in its ends, not in its processes,” she said. “If we want to hold onto our democracy, we have to think hard about the processes we use to do that.”

Rigas and James Sherk, who served as special assistant to former President Donald Trump, said the executive order that inspired Schedule F was about giving managers and supervisors recourse to deal with intransigence or ineptitude.

“If we wanted a patronage system, if that was the purpose of the whole thing, we would’ve created a whole bunch of Schedule C positions,” Sherk said. “You didn’t need Schedule F if you wanted more patronage jobs.”

Schedule C makes up most of the political appointments at the lower echelons of government, generally at the GS-15 level and below.

Rigas also said Schedule F includes certain “prohibited personnel practices” that bar managers from discriminating against a potential employee on the basis of political affiliation, among other factors.

However, opponents said the language allows the president to hire around the competitive process, potentially undermining the regulated that sets the federal government apart from the private sector and other types of governments.

“We can talk about ideally what the schedule says, but when we look at its consequences, it brings us right back to the ‘snivel’ service,’” Guy said, referring to the pejorative term from the 1880s.

As far as what the government might expect from a future version of Schedule F, Sherk said it could be broadened from the original 50,000 positions that are of influential policymaking or confidential nature, though it likely wouldn’t exceed 100,000.

Unions will almost certainly oppose the measure if it resurfaces.

Sherk said unions that defy executive policy making, like telework, are infringing on executive power, and one fix could be allowing the president or agency heads to terminate a union contract at will.

“The [Supreme] Court has never confronted this precise question because no president has said these unions interfere with my Article II power, but if you look at what the courts have said in other contexts about the president’s appointment authority, his supervision and control, it does seem to me pretty clear that the unions can’t do what they’re doing, where they’re exercising significant policy influence over agency actions,” he said.

James-Christian Blockwood, executive vice president at the Partnership for Public Service, said at the panel that the question of managing the civil service has become needlessly partisan.

“We should be clear: are we talking about performance? Are we talking about political responsiveness or this concept around political resistance, or all of the above?,” he said.

Blockwood also mentioned a need to balance accountability with uplifting and inspiring the workforce, which he and Guy said should be coupled with early intervention during employees’ probationary periods if they are underperforming.

“We should do all of these things rather than look at legislation that seeks to prevent or stop a future president from enacting their policies or, quite frankly, an administration seeking to manage by executive order,” Blockwood said.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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