Energy Department employees just got a lot harder for you to find
The Department of Energy has taken down its public-facing employee directory, making it far more difficult for journalists and members of the public to locate email addresses and phone numbers for agency personnel.
The move, which was announced to agency contractors on Wednesday and implemented Thursday morning, was confirmed in an internal email shared with Mashable.
Making federal scientists and policy makers harder to contact isn’t a trivial matter. These kinds of moves toward opacity wall off employees from the outside world and make it more likely that they won’t experience public pressure related to their taxpayer-funded work.
It also makes it easier for public relations officers to assume more control over access to interview subjects, since journalists unfamiliar with agency sources will need to contact the central press office to make headway on a story.
The phonebook was functioning early Thursday morning but went down around 10:15 a.m. ET.
This is how the page reads now:
Department of Energy public-facing phonebook.
Instead of finding the Energy Department phonebook online on Thursday, visitors to the department website now are directed to a central phone number (which is 202-586-5000) and are told to contact a specific office via a web directory.
The directory allowed any user to search for department employees by name and retrieve their basic contact information and office division, which was a help for journalists, civil society watchdog groups and many others seeking to penetrate the often opaque federal bureaucracy.
Until this morning, you could look up Energy Department employees by name to find their office phone number and email addresses. Considering the fact that the department is a maze of more than 10,000 employees and contractors located around the world, that phonebook is more than convenient — it’s essential.
Other federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, still have intact public phonebooks, as they did throughout the Obama administration.
The department has not yet responded to a request for comment regarding why the public-facing personnel database was taken offline, and the internal email sent to an agency contractor did not provide a reason why the public phonebook was removed.
Energy Department employees, contractors and watchdog groups have been on alert for changes at the department that would limit transparency and would infringe upon the agency’s broad portfolio of climate science research. Maintaining the scientific integrity and independence of the agency’s scientific work has been a particular concern in light of the Trump administration’s denial of mainstream climate science findings.
Prior to stepping down at the end of former president Barack Obama’s second term, former secretary Ernest Moniz signed an agency-wide scientific integrity policy that would ostensibly protect the organization’s research from political interference, but it is not binding on agency officials.
EPA scientists have already been forced to violate their integrity policy when they were told not to speak to the press or share research results with the public during the presidential transition.
Image: Nati Harnik/AP/REX/Shutterstock
Wind turbines dot the landscape near Steele City, Neb.
Under Obama, the Energy Department became a leading source of venture capital for clean energy firms, in addition to funding cutting edge climate science and energy research at its network of national labs.
The Trump administration made waves during the transition when it asked the department for the names of employees who had worked on climate programs and participated in international climate negotiations, suggesting a coming purge of staff involve in climate programs.
The Trump transition team then backed off from that questionnaire, attributing it to a "rogue" staff member. The transition team also hinted that the department is destined for an across the board 10 percent budget cut under the new administration.
President Donald Trump’s nominee for Energy Secretary, former Texas governor Rick Perry, has said he would work to protect scientists at the department and is still awaiting Senate confirmation. In the past, Perry has denied the existence of human-caused climate change and advocated for the elimination of the agency entirely, though he softened that stance at the opening of his confirmation hearing.
"I have learned a great deal about the important work being done every day by the outstanding men and women of the Department of Energy," Perry said.
"My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking," he said.
The disabling of the public Energy Department phonebook is similar to what the Trump administration did to the White House public contact number, when it instead asked for comments via social media or a web form.
In both cases, the ease of public access to key parts of the federal government has been limited. The White House is now essentially walled off from comment by anyone without an internet connection.
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