Interior Department Defends Reorg Plan Critics Call Wasteful, Ideological
Deputy tells House members the still-secret plan localizes decision-making.
An Interior Department official on Tuesday declined to share with House lawmakers a document detailing the Trump administration’s reorganization plan for the Interior Department, as a subcommittee chairman had demanded.
The 14-month-old plan remains a general vision that the department’s political appointees praise as an efficiency tool to make it easier for stakeholders to do “one-stop shopping” business with the government. Critics deride it as a resource-draining, morale-crushing “solution in search of a problem.”
Like the current dispute over moving Agriculture Department research offices out of Washington, the clash stems from the Trump team’s desire to move federal employees outside the Beltway.
Rep. TJ Cox, D-Calif., chair of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, grilled Interior’s point man on the reorganization during a hearing Tuesday, noting that his panel had received only a one-page document despite multiple requests for details on what he called a “massive reorganization plan” for which there are no timelines or cost-benefit analyses.
“We have not seen data to show that there is a problem," Cox said. "We have not seen data showing that this plan is a way to solve the problem.”
The $60 million the department plans to spend on the reorganization, while ignoring reorganization techniques recommended by the Government Accountability Office, Cox added, could have been used for water projects in central California, or to reduce the department's backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests. Instead, the impact has been to move Senior Executive Service employees into positions for which they are not qualified, for reasons that “are either punitive or based on ideology,” Cox said, noting that 90 percent of Interior’s employees are already outside of Washington. The result is low morale for the department’s 70,000 employees and a departure of many with institutional knowledge, the lawmaker said.
Scott Cameron, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, said he couldn’t speak to the legal or practical reasons why the document remains under wraps. The department’s Office of Congressional Liaison is preparing a response, he said, adding that the original plan offered by then-Secretary Ryan Zinke was halted at the Office of Management and Budget.
But Cameron expressed enthusiasm for the plan to streamline 49 existing boundaries under eight bureaus and create 12 unified regions that align those bureaus to “shared geographic boundaries and, more importantly, shared geographic perspective,” he said. Also in the works are plans to move the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management headquarters out west.
The 12 bureaus are “rooted in science” and based on watersheds and ecosystems, Cameron explained, and were arrived at after consultation with senior career employees, field offices, states, tribes and other stakeholders. They will “increase our ability to share knowledge across the region,” he added. Each bureau will be led by a regional director, though their agendas will vary, he said, citing a contract with firefighting in California and water management in Arizona or Texas.
“The key here is flexibility,” Cameron said, adding that management reforms will bring more consistency in human resources, information technology and procurement function, which are being evaluated under new contracts.
Other advantages he cited included office space less costly than that of Interior’s main building, reduced travel time—“more one-hour flights and fewer four-hour flights”—and a cost of living for employees that is “cheaper out West. For most significant issues, multiple bureaus are involved, so this plan will tighten decision-making at the local level so that fewer [decisions] are kicked up to Washington.”
Cameron acknowledged under questioning that Secretary David Bernhardt remains the ultimate decision maker and that the deputies and assistant secretaries remain in the chain of command. But fewer decisions, he added, will be made by people “who’ve never been on the ground in Maricopa County, [Arizona] or St. George, Utah.”
The Interior deputy received support from subcommittee ranking member Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, who called the plan a “bold” move, as part of a larger administration plan to make the “government more effective, more agile” in managing public lands while reducing bureaucracy, increasing accountability and improving coordination with states. “Historically, reorganization has never been partisan, so don’t miss this opportunity," he said. He, too, however, said he would like to see the detailed plan to conduct proper oversight.
The other three panelists gave the plan a thumbs-down. Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe based in Eagle Butte, S.D., said his people had “never been properly consulted” on the reorganization plan, “just given a picture of a map, with no data.” He decried a shortage of personnel in Indian affairs programs along with unfilled positions in education programs. “Will the money [for reorganization] come off the backs of our children and our future?” he asked. “It should come from grass roots up.”
Cameron replied that his team had conducted 11 formal tribal consultations, along with seven “listening sessions.” But because “we didn’t want to impose it on them,” the reorganization plan doesn’t affect the tribal program offices.
Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general who was bought into Interior in 2010 to reorganize after the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill, faulted the Trump team for “announcing a global reorganization” by press release and then “falling in love with the plan” before any cost-benefit analyses had been done. He called the plan an “executive vanity project” that was written “without doing the spadework about how to accomplish it.”
“I don’t like reorganizations—they’re disruptive, expensive, frustrating, and they lower morale,” Bromwich said. “A successful reorganization is a rare species,” he added. But when needed, those implementing the changes should announce the intention “in broad strokes” and keep “an open mind” while consulting with stakeholders, employees and Congress, about what is being considered before locking into the solution.
Interior’s website on reorganization “hasn’t been updated since November,” Bromwich added. The department’s leaders “have done a good job talking in generalities, but if this plan were submitted to a board of directors of any major company, it would be rejected for lack of detail.”
Inside the department, the reorganization move has prompted a “crisis, a culture of fear,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, former head of the Fish and Wildlife Service and now the president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. Besides being wasteful and harmful to morale, she said, the “ill-defined, reckless” plan is “confusing,” and may actually add to bureaucratic structure for some by as much as 50 percent.”
While it is true that relocation of senior executives is part of the way the SES was designed in 1978, she said, there is a difference between “consultation and lecturing” to executives about the direction of their careers.
She went further. “Given this administration’s natural resource management agenda, including the imposition of 'energy dominance’ on the public domain and attacks on our conservation laws and regulations, it is fair to question whether the purpose of reorganization is actually geared to support these policy ends, rather than to achieve objectives of efficiency and public service in carrying out the department’s complex and multi-dimensional mission,” Clark said.
Full committee ranking member Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the entire structure of Interior evolved over the past 150 years “by tradition” and not by reference to the law or oversight. He got Cameron to report on a two-day conference the department conducted with senior executives, whose suggestions produced modifications in the plan, Cameron said. Bishop said that under the plan, “the propensity will be that decisions are more reflective of what the needs are locally. That doesn’t happen with status quo.”
Full Committee Chairman Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., pressed Cameron for a list of the program offices that will be cut under the “unspoken plan.” (The official agreed). The chairman also called the reorganization plan “like a manual for creating a crisis. You move people as far away from Congress as possible,” take away the related nonprofits, “make it clear that the workforce is not valued, and send them to new parts of the country and uproot their families their lives, put things in the hands of political appointees, downgrade their performance ratings.”
Both Clark and Chairman Cox pressed Cameron to suspend the reorganization plan. The recently confirmed secretary, Cox said, “has the option to course-correct.”