Biden to promote diversity and union rights in federal workforce

This article features Government Accountability Project’s Legal Director Tom Devine and was originally published here.

President-elect Biden has set out his priorities for government and the federal service, though work on the handover from Donald Trump has so far been blocked by the General Services Administration (GSA).

The Biden-Harris transition team has said it will promote diversity and accountability in leadership across key positions in all federal agencies to combat systemic racism. It will also make “a historic commitment to equalising federal procurement”.

Public service and federal government workers’ rights to organise unions and collectively bargain will also be protected in the coming years. “This starts with passing the Protecting the Right to Organise (PRO) Act,” the transition website Build Back Better says.

According to the site, launched on Wednesday, the Biden-Harris transition team will focus on four key priorities for government: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change. The site stresses that the incoming administration will call on federal government experts to inform their policies.

Clarity on transparency

There are also promising signs on transparency and whistleblowing, after many whistleblowers and inspectors general were sacked under Trump. Rick Bright, who Trump demoted from his role as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority after he spoke out about political interference in his agency’s scientific research, has been appointed as an advisor to the new Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board.

Tom Devine, legal director at the whistleblower advocacy group Government Accountability Project, told GovExec that Bright’s appointment was an “exciting move both in tangible and symbolic terms.”

“For federal workers, it means whistleblowers are on the team,” Devine said. “Instead of being excised, they’re welcomed.”

Hanging on

A smooth transfer of power is currently being blocked by the General Services Administration (GSA), however. The organisation’s administrator, Trump appointee Emily W. Murphy, is yet to declare Biden as the official presidential election winner.

Under federal law, the Biden team cannot access federal funds, gain access to government office space or communicate directly with the agencies it will control until GSA “ascertains” the winner.

“An ascertainment has not yet been made,” the agency said in a statement to Bloomberg on Monday. “GSA and its administrator will continue to abide by, and fulfil, all requirements under the law and adhere to prior precedent established by the Clinton administration in 2000.” The Biden transition team is reported to be considering legal action against the agency over the delay.


Despite the hold-up, on Tuesday the transition team announced the names of its “agency review teams” (ART), who will lead the handover at some of the government’s largest government departments, Politico reported.

More than 50% of the hundreds of “ART personnel” will be women, it said, and at least 40% will be people of colour or people who identify as LGBTQ+. They include Ur Mendoza Jaddou, who served under Obama, to lead the handover at the Department of Homeland Security; Leandra English at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; and Cecilia Martinez at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“The strong, progressive values of many of the ART members, in addition to the deep roots in the labour movement, will set the tone for the incoming Biden-Harris administration,” the transition said in a statement to Politico.

Parting shots

Meanwhile, President Trump has been making changes at the top of the Pentagon. He announced in a tweet on 9 November that defense secretary Mark Esper had been “terminated” and replaced by Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Centre. The following day, the department’s most senior civilian policy and intelligence officials quit, Defense News reported.

Undersecretary of defense for intelligence Joseph Kernan, who was confirmed three years ago, has been replaced by Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a former aide to national security adviser Michael Flynn. And James Anderson, the Pentagon’s policy lead, is to be succeeded by Anthony Tata, a former soldier and Fox News commentator.

All three roles will be occupied on an acting basis, avoiding the need for Congressional approval.