Interior Secretary David Bernhardt applauds for President Trump as he speaks at a campaign rally on Feb. 20, 2020, in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt applauds for President Trump as he speaks at a campaign rally on Feb. 20, 2020, in Colorado Springs, Colo. David Zalubowski/AP

Government Auditor Blasts Interior for Unjustified Relocations That Did Not Consider Employee Views

The Bureau of Land Management also failed to provide key documentation supporting the decision to move its headquarters.

The Interior Department failed to take key steps to justify its relocation of a headquarters office across the country, according to a new report, including analyzing all associated costs, communicating with employees and assessing the workforce impact. 

The Trump administration did not follow best practices for effective agency reform through reorganization when it decided to relocate 300 positions from Washington, D.C., to western states, the Government Accountability Office found in a review of the process. The relocations are already underway, with about half of impacted employees rejecting their mandated reassignment. 

GAO faulted Interior for failing to provide any documentation showing that it took into consideration the views of its employees or other key stakeholders. Some executives provided feedback to the agency, the auditors said, but BLM provided no evidence it took those views into consideration. It was unclear whether BLM reviewed the information it received from senior leaders on which positions to relocate. The documents GAO reviewed “also do not indicate that staff other than the executive leadership team were consulted or engaged with during this formulation process.” BLM management held “listening sessions” with employees to explain agency reforms, but did not bring up the relocation during those talks. The agency only began updating employees with information after it already notified Congress of its plans, GAO found. 

“Employee involvement strengthens the process and allows them to share their experiences and shape policies,” the auditors wrote. “Involving employees also helps gain their ownership for the reform.”

BLM employees have told Government Executive that even some of those who have accepted their reassignments are still looking for jobs in Washington and will come back home as soon as possible. Many employees have already found new jobs and left the agency. The workers all suggested morale at the Washington office has plummeted, mistrust of leadership has grown and a sinking feeling that the Trump administration is seeking to sideline important work has set in.

BLM took some steps to ensure a smooth transition as vacancies arose due to the relocations, such as identifying employees to fill in as the process unfolded and prioritizing which positions were most important to fill. The agency could not provide any documentation, however, on how the reorganization would impact current employees. It ended up severely underestimating the number of employees who would decline to relocate. 

The agency has also failed to develop any specific plans for recruiting. Leadership asserted that recruiting would be easier due to “a better quality of life than in larger cities,” but it provided no analysis to back that up. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told lawmakers last week he has no concerns about unfilled positions, saying BLM is hiring at the local level to backfill any vacancies. 

“I received feedback on a number of panels that are doing interviews,” Bernhardt said. “The caliber of people and number of people applying for these positions is through the roof and phenomenal.” 

Interior has defended the move by highlighting that nearly all of the land BLM manages is in western states, so it makes sense for the decision-makers to be there too. Additionally, Trump administration officials have said the move will lower lease payments, reduce travel costs and generate savings by paying employees smaller cost-of-living locality rates. Employees and other critics of the plan, however, have noted that about 97% of BLM’s workforce is already located in the western United States. Relocating employees out of Washington will make enforcement actions carry less weight, they said, and reduce the influence BLM has within Interior and the rest of the Trump administration.

GAO said BLM failed to provide analysis to back up its claims or documentation that it properly used data in its decision making. The agency never provided analysis to justify choosing Grand Junction, Colorado, as its new headquarters location, for example, nor has it developed performance metrics by which it can measure the success of its initiative. GAO specifically asked for such metrics, but the agency never provided them. 

BLM itself noted it would require more analysis of cost and benefits, but it never released that information and did not provide it to GAO. It provided general justifications for relocating positions, but did not drill down into specifics and in some cases used the same broad reasoning for an entire division in which employees were being sent to different cities. 

The agency’s relocation plan included high-level goals, GAO said, but did not spell out any specific milestones such as steps it would take before fully closing the Washington headquarters by the end of 2020. BLM did not inform GAO whether it had designated a manager to oversee the relocations, as promised. 

“Establishing outcome-oriented performance measures for its reorganization would enhance BLM’s ability to assess the effectiveness of its reorganization efforts,” GAO said. “Our past work has also found that leadership should articulate a succinct and compelling reason for the reform, as this helps build morale and commitment to the organizational changes.”

GAO advised Interior to address its shortcomings to both ensure better outcomes for BLM and to prepare for other potential relocations the department has suggested may still come. 

“Although BLM’s reorganization is well under way, as Interior considers pursuing reorganizations of its other bureaus,” the auditors wrote, “the department has an opportunity to apply key practices for effective agency reforms to better enable it to achieve progress toward its reform goals.”

Interior management responded to GAO’s report by suggesting it had largely addressed the auditors’ key concerns, though it failed to provide documentation to prove it. It also said the relocations did not constitute a reorganization and therefore should not be evaluated as such, but GAO noted BLM referred to the changes as a reorganization in its own documents.