Few agencies sought Schedule F conversions

In the waning days of the Trump administration, only a relative handful out of hundreds of eligible agencies and department responded to an executive order that looked to reclassify vast swathes of the federal civil service as at-will employees.

WILKES-BARRE, PA - AUGUST 2, 2018: Donald Trump, President of the United States pauses with a concerned expression while delivering a speech at a campaign rally held at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Editorial credit: Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock.com image number 1515374468

Trump delivers a speech in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. in Aug. 2018 (Image credit: Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock.com)

Just 14 out of hundreds of eligible agencies and departments provided any written response to a Trump-era executive order establishing a new category of the civil service called Schedule F meant to encompass a range of policy-related and supervisory roles, according to documents obtained by FCW under the Freedom of Information Act.

The executive order, released in October 2020, tasked agencies with compiling preliminary lists of positions to be reclassified under Schedule F by Jan. 19, 2021, just one day before the inauguration of President Joe Biden. Biden revoked the executive order on Jan. 22.

Ten of the 14 agencies that sent responses to the Office of Personnel Management by the deadline either identified zero positions for conversion or punted their decisions to the subsequent reporting deadline set out in the order of May 19.

National Archives and Records Administration, which identified no positions for conversion, sent its Schedule F determination to OPM via email at 4:16PM on Jan. 19. Most of the other negative responses were also sent on the deadline day.

"I think what you're seeing from those submissions is token compliance. We're going to check that box, but we're going to do it in a way that causes minimal damage," said Ron Sanders, former chair of the Federal Salary Council, who resigned in protest of Schedule F. "[Agencies] did not know at the time what OPM was going to do with those requests. In theory, the executive order was still alive [on Jan. 19], and OPM could have turned around … and approved them the next day. I would characterize it as hedging their bets."

The Treasury Department told OPM days earlier on Jan. 15 that that a preliminary review found that none of the posts held by the agency's 96,000 employees were suitable for conversion.

Other agencies that responded to OPM but didn't seek to convert any positions include the National Labor Relations Board, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Some agencies did seek to move substantial portions of their employees into Schedule F positions.

As has been reported in FCW and elsewhere, the Office of Management and Budget sought to convert the bulk of its workforce to Schedule F. The agency, which had 527 general schedule employees according to December 2020 data from OPM, requested that 436 positions be moved into the new schedule.

Russell Vought, then director of OMB, announced in a December 2020 letter published in the Wall Street Journal that his agency would lead in implementing Schedule F.

News of the office's initial moves to classify feds at OMB sparked anxiety among some about the potential politicization of the office, given its critical role in preparing the federal budget and developing governmentwide management policy. At the time, Vought said such objections "bordered on the hysterical."

Among the positions slated for conversion were a GS-11 administrative assistant whose duties entailed "regularly working with predecisional and deliberative materials of the agency and the Executive Office of the President, including such highly sensitive materials as draft Executive Orders" and a GS-12 FOIA officer whose duties included "handling, circulating, and providing a variety of deliberative communications and materials to and from the General Counsel and other OMB offices including closely reviewing sensitive predecisional and other privileged materials."

A number of technology policy positions were added to the Schedule F pool, including the administrator and deputy administrator of the U.S. Digital Service and dozens of other USDS posts. A number of cybersecurity specialty jobs were also tagged for Schedule F conversion.

On Jan. 19, the Environmental Protection Agency also requested that 579 positions be moved to the new category, out of a workforce of more than 11,000.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was poised to convert most of its workforce. The agency included 864 positions in its Jan. 19 request. FERC has 1,166 employees, according to OPM data. The U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission sought to convert five positions.

When it was released last year, the Schedule F order sparked concern among Democrats in Congress, federal employee unions and groups representing federal managers and the senior executive service. They argued that taking away civil service employment protections would create a new class of political appointees inside the government.

Those concerns persisted well after the 2020 elections, especially since House Democrats failed in their efforts to block the implementation of Schedule F in the fiscal year 2021 appropriations package.

Absent any new legislation, Schedule F or something like it could resurface in a future administration.

"It nothing changes, it could very much return in the future," Donald Moynihan, a public policy expert at Georgetown University, told FCW in February. "There's nothing to say that another president four years from now or eight years from now couldn't take the exact same language and write another executive order."