Rise of the @alt_govs shows the true patriotism of federal workforce

The Thinker by Rodin

Today begins the eighth day of the Trump presidency. What a whirlwind it has been! Trump has succeeded in keeping the focus on him by moving aggressively in many areas. So far it looks like more like chaos than management. Inside the White House at least a few aides were talking with the press about the new president, and what emerged was not flattering. A rogue Twitter account reputedly from inside the White House quickly was squelched but was archived. Meanwhile, a National Park Service employee retweeted a picture of crowd sizes on the Mall during the inauguration, comparing Trump’s unimpressive crowd size with Obama’s impressive crowd size in 2009.

This ill-advised action though turned out to be the opening salvo of the federal resistance to their new boss. Trump quickly noticed and as his fashion came down hard. The NPS and Department of Interior twitter feeds temporarily went down. Unfortunately for Trump, there is no master switch to turn off all the government’s Twitter feeds; it’s the nature of social media. Some employee at Badlands National Park in South Dakota tweeted some indisputable facts about the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now compared to the pre-industrial age. The tweet was quickly deleted but Trump quickly sent out orders to many departments including the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency to freeze all public communications.

It quickly got Orwellian. During the campaign, Trump declared that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. Climate change data and reports started to disappear from federal websites. This is a realization of the exact fear that caused President Obama to encourage third parties to download this data before he left office.

As a retired federal employee last with the U.S. Geological Survey, I was alarmed yesterday when I learned that the USGS had removed some climate reports. Just nine days ago I had posted about this fear and what it would mean to USGS if it came to pass. It’s here already, on Day 8.

I have little doubt what is going on inside of USGS, a great place to work. Doubtless there is great alarm, as it is an institution chock full of scientists who were hired specifically because they would tell the truth to power through impartial scientific analysis. Thus I was not surprised to learn last night of an @alt_USGS Twitter account, so far with only 116 followers.

@alt_USGS is one of the newest newbies among these newbie @alt_gov Twitter accounts. In fact, they are all a direct response to Donald Trump’s bullying of federal agencies and their messages. Trump of course famously rose to power in part because of his use of Twitter. It’s looking that what’s good for Trump is also good for federal employees who don’t want to be muzzled. Pretty much every agency and department seems to have at least one @alt_gov Twitter feed.

These are logical but brave responses to the assault on federal agencies by the Trump Administration. It’s unclear how many of these feeds are actually managed by employees of these agencies. It’s not hard to guess that Trump is furious over these. Hopefully these feds are being very careful, posting from their own devices and only after official hours or when on breaks. It is likely that many of these feeds get a wink and a nod from the interim management in place, whose staff might be aiding and abetting these efforts.

Scanning @alt_USGS, it’s clear to me that these are actual USGS employees, or possibly retired USGS employees like me still connected with the organization. USGS allows scientists to retire with an emeritus status. I didn’t qualify as I am not a scientist, but those with emeritus status frequently volunteer part time at their old offices and may retain a small office. And they network, as I discovered first hand last November when I attended the USGS Retirees reunion in Nashville, which curiously ended on Election Day. Anyhow, having spent ten years with USGS, the feed is wholly consistent with the people I met there. So far at least it is largely nonpolitical, containing pictures that look like USGS employees might have taken them. When facts are mentioned they are scrupulously scientific.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of these Twitter feeds now doubtlessly drawing the wrath of Donald Trump. I expect he will try to find a way for his minions to crack down on these feeds. Given that he has no control over Twitter, it’s unlikely, but I expect he will try.

Federal employees are pretty good at watching behind their backs, but some are going to get caught and will be made examples of to intimidate others from trying. Providing there is no use of government time or resources, such attempts would not withstand a legal challenge, but bringing them would be intimidating. Despite federal whistleblower laws, any whistleblower in the federal government knows that they will likely be attacked punitively.

These @alt_gov actions really give lie to some myths about federal employees. The first one is that federal employees don’t care about their work. They clearly do and their work is so important that they will invest their own time and risk their careers to participate in these #resistance efforts. Second, they take their civil service oath seriously. While the president is their boss, they work for the people of the United States and swear an oath to be faithful to the constitution and its laws. The information being provided in these Twitter feeds are or should be part of public record.

Trump’s attempt to stifle information flow from federal agencies is likely to backfire, and this is the first overt sign that it already has. His orders to remove public access to areas like climate change data and reports are very likely illegal. Thus public employees fighting these efforts are true patriots, upholding the true spirit of the constitution and our law, providing of course that these tweets are faithful to their agency’s mission and the current law.

Barack Obama seems to agree. Rumor has it that he has subscribed to many of these @alt_gov accounts, tacitly giving them his endorsement. As he gets back from vacation it will be interesting to see how Obama will become part of this resistance.

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