Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, praised the department's progress.

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, praised the department's progress. Susan Walsh/AP

Interior Department Says It Has Made Great Strides in Eliminating Systemic Harassment

Lawmakers applaud efforts, but say the progress is unproven as IG is still investigating harassment cases.

A top Interior Department official said the agency has taken significant steps to address longstanding and pervasive issues with harassment, telling skeptical lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday those efforts have already taken hold and sparked change. 

Interior in 2017 set an aggressive schedule to train all of its top 9,000 leaders within two years, Susan Combs, Interior’s assistant secretary for policy management and budget, told a panel of the House Natural Resources Committee. The department met that goal earlier this year, Combs said. Officials have also increased investigations in allegations of misconduct, established an advisory hotline, issued a departmentwide harassment policy, instituted a tracking system to monitor cases and conducted a workplace survey. 

Interior has in recent years faced a series of reports exposing widespread sexual harassment throughout department posts, including a particularly explosive investigation into the National Park Service’s Grand Canyon region. That led to a series of congressional hearings, calls from leadership for greater authority to fire employees and repeated promises for reform. Still, allegations against employees engaging in harassment—and supervisors covering it up—have persisted.    

Former Secretary Ryan Zinke spearheaded a first-of-its-kind, department-wide workplace environment survey in 2017 that found 35% of employees had experienced harassment at work in the previous 12 months. Combs boasted that figure had dropped to 18% in 2019, though that result came from the annual, governmentwide Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management. At the department’s request OPM added six harassment related questions to its survey specifically for Interior. Lawmakers expressed caution about comparing the results of two different surveys, which have different methods and question wording. 

Combs also noted that the portion of Interior’s workforce who knew where to report harassment—according to the two separate surveys— grew from 62% in 2017 to 94% in 2019. 

Mark Greenblatt, Interior’s inspector general, said while some progress has been made, “there is more work to do.” The IG has found costs have prevented investigations, Interior has not consistently tracked timeliness of investigations and investigations have not resulted in recommendations for corrective actions. He noted his office is currently investigating eight cases involving allegations of harassment. 

“We’ll take all cases,” Greenblatt said. “We’re going to continue.” 

Combs said the training efforts also will continue. The department recently hired a vendor to conduct harassment training across the department that will be customized to each bureau. She also explained that addressing complaints of harassment has been added to each supervisor’s performance evaluations. She pledged Interior would continue to improve. 

“There is much to be done, we look forward to doing it and we will not rest,” Combs said. 

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, the top Republican on the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee that held the hearing, praised the Trump administration for implementing reforms, saying they had “already resulted in improvement.” 

Under the current administration, the “department is finally taking steps to address these longstanding issues,” Gohmert said, which is “making a difference for federal employees.” 

Rep. T.J. Cox, D-Calif., the panel’s chairman, joined other Democrats in seeking to pump the brakes on congratulating Interior. He noted morale has sunk at the department and that Interior needs a firmer baseline upon which to measure the success of its efforts. He said efforts such as the relocation of hundreds of Washington, D.C.-based Bureau of Land Management employees to Colorado would lead to further discontent among the Interior workforce. 

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said Interior leadership still has a long way to go to regain the trust of its workforce.

“Making public statements is easy,” she said, whereas “real change” would require engagement and leadership. 

Greenblatt, the IG, encouraged victims of harassment to continue to speak out, promising to have their backs. 

“To all survivors and witnesses who may be listening today, please come forward through the OIG hotline or the departmental avenues available to you,” Greenblatt said. “OIG investigators take this work to heart and understand that this is a very personal issue.”

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