How to make a federal employee nervous

Who are you, what do you do here and why do you do it? And who said you could do it?

Classic new-boss questions. This line of inquiry always inspires FUD — fear, uncertainty and doubt. Asked in the right tone, the questions can signal cooperation and a desire to learn. Given with pursed lips and a glare,  they’re intended to intimidate.

No doubt you’ve heard about the 74-point questionnaire sent to certain Energy Department employees from the Trump transition team.  When I read the questionnaire, three things stood out:

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  • Nine of the questions ask for names of specific employees and contractors. Others ask about the top 20 salaried lab employees and scientific publications over the last three years.
  • Questionnaire writers appear to know their way around the Energy Department and locations of the policy hot buttons.
  • The Trump administration means to alter or reverse a lot of what’s going on at DOE. Questions cover offshore wind, the (now closed) Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility and other civilian radioactive waste activities, ARPA-E projects, the Social Cost of Carbon project, who attended the Conference of the Parties meetings, DOE Lab programs, the President’s Climate Action Plan, solar energy analyses.

All in all, a daunting and intimidating rasher of information to gather. It gives credence to the idea that there is a political witch hunt going on over climate policy.

A few questions seem neutral, even helpful. “Describe your alternatives to the ever-increasing WTP cost and schedule, whether technical or programmatic?” It refers to a waste treatment and immobilization project in Hanford, Washington. Several DOE inspector general and Government Accountability Office reports have criticized the project. I imagine DOE employees close to the project have lots of ideas about how to improve a complicated plan to ultimately turn millions of gallons of horrible liquid waste into radioactive glass cylinders.

Much of what the questionnaire is seeking to ferret out would not be available publicly or by FOIA request. And some is out of bounds for people not yet in power. But it seeks information an incoming Energy secretary would need to have.

Is the Trump questionnaire tough, aggressive and intimidating? Yes. Is it illegal, as Labor Secretary Tom Perez recently said? No. If there’s a lawyer out there who disagrees, please call (202-95-5274) or email.

But I do know how Energy employees feel about the questions. During one period in my career, I was editor of an industry-leading publication that had a series of management changes. Everyone thinks they’re an editor.

Perhaps the real purpose behind the Trump transition team questionnaire is to send a tough message. And to expect big change.