Academy suggests overhaul at Bureau of Indian Affairs

klunney@govexec.com

The beleaguered Bureau of Indian Affairs continues to experience significant administrative and managerial problems and needs a management make-over, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) said Wednesday.

Testifying before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, a NAPA fellow said the Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian affairs needs to bring on management staff to improve policy planning, budgeting, human resources, and information resource management.

"The academy believes the current management and administration of the BIA are not fully adequate to meet all of its trust responsibilities to American Indians and Alaska Natives," Academy fellow Royce Hanson said. "Niether the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs nor the bureau has the internal staff capabilities that typically support managerial and administrative excellence."

A 1999 NAPA report expressed concern over the agency's difficulties in a number of areas including:

  • Inabilities in developing comprehensive strategic and annual performance plans.
  • Inadequate job training and human resource guidance for employees.
  • Unreliable accounting and financial documentation.
  • Missed opportunities in information technology.
  • Shoddy record management.
  • Customer dissatisfaction and frustration with BIA's procurement system.

The report recommended establishing a Policy, Management and Budget Office to oversee efforts to shore up management strength at the bureau and developing performance measures to gauge BIA's effectiveness.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover said BIA welcomed NAPA's recommendations and intends to implement them. When asked by Committee Chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., what he hoped to accomplish by the end of his tenure, Gover said he would like to see the agency achieve a clean financial audit. DOI's Office of Inspector General has given BIA a qualified audit opinion for several years.

Gover also noted BIA's efforts in the last year to focus on regaining public trust, establishing its credibility in the eyes of Congress, and working on technical issues. He acknowledged that the agency had not accomplished much in the way of information technology.

Gover emphasized that BIA was committed to cleaning up its internal operations and to strengthening its partnership with Native American tribes. BIA is requesting $9.2 million for its fiscal 2001 budget.

W. Ron Allen, first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), praised the recommendations of NAPA, but also expressed concern over how they would affect tribes.

"NCAI believes that these decisions regarding any reorganization of the BIA must be developed in consultation with tribal governments and be consistent with the fundamental principle of self-determination," Allen said.

Gover attributed much of the agency's administrative troubles to the geographic distance between BIA's Washington headquarters and its accounting and information resource operations located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In light of that, BIA mandated a relocation of all BIA administrative operations from Albuquerque to Reston, Virgina-a move that has many affected employees and other stakeholders in an uproar. Opponents of the move say the loss of long-term and knowledgable employees in the Office of Information Resources Management will wreak even more havoc on strained operations.

That office is responsible for sending checks to Indian trust beneficiaries, who rely on trust funds for basic living necessities.

Gover defended the relocation saying that "face-to-face, direct supervision" of staff would improve operations. Critics pointed out, however, that Indians have strong cultural and religious ties to their tribes and to the land, making relocation an extremely difficult option.

The relocation debacle illustrates the tough decisions and painful sacrifices that come with policymaking, a point that was not lost on Campbell, who noted that there is often much "hardship in public service."

Campbell acknowledged that the problems facing both the BIA and the Indian tribes were complex and would require a great deal of effort from all involved.

NAPA is an independent, nonpartisan organization that works with federal, state, and local governments on improving overall efficiency and effectiveness within the public sector.

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