Land Management Agency Still Facing Vacancies From Headquarters Move After Workers Fled
The agency's Black and most experienced workers saw particular decreases.
The Trump administration oversaw a mass exodus of employees at the Bureau of Land Management, according to a new report. Experienced and Black workers left in particularly high numbers.
The vacancies still persist despite some efforts by the bureau to fill the positions, the Government Accountability Office found, and the agency still has yet to develop a long-term plan for filling them. The workforce reductions followed efforts to reorganize BLM’s offices and directorates, as well as its highly controversial relocation of its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to western Colorado. The Biden administration announced in September it would move the headquarters back to Washington while maintaining a western headquarters in Colorado.
BLM saw 135 new headquarters vacancies after its relocation and the number of open positions spiked by 169% immediately following the relocation deadline. The agency has since filled some of the positions, but the number of employees remains down by 18%. GAO criticized BLM for failing to keep better track of its vacancies and the agency agreed to fix that shortcoming. It has relied on temporary reassignments to help shore up the gaps that have persisted since reorganization efforts began in 2016, but staffers told GAO that has created new capacity issues at the state offices they vacated. Like its vacancy data, BLM does not maintain a database of its employees on temporary assignments.
“Without complete and reliable data on vacancies and details across the agency, BLM officials do not have complete information to make decisions about filling vacancies and initiating details to help the agency achieve its mission and goals,” GAO said.
The ongoing vacancies, the workers said, have led to delays in issuing policy and guidance. Employees told the auditors they are occasionally relying on outdated guidance to do their jobs and system upgrades have been delayed. Promotions from state offices to fill headquarters vacancies have further exacerbated shortfalls at those offices, employees said. They also lamented that decisions related to the relocation were made “behind closed doors,” aligning with a previous GAO report that found the move was unjustified and made without consultation with employees.
Prior to the headquarters relocation, about one-quarter of BLM employees had at least 25 years of experience at the Interior Department. After the relocation, that rate dropped to 17%. The headquarters specifically saw a 34% decrease in those highly experienced workers. Employees said that enough institutional knowledge walked out the door that the agency is struggling to weigh in on regulations and legislation. Some workers said staff left so rapidly after the relocation that little knowledge transfer took place.
Recent workforce changes and the relocation also disproportionately impacted certain demographics at BLM, as Latino and Asian workers increased by more than 15% and Black workers decreased by 6% between 2016 and 2021. Just around 3% of BLM’s workforce was Black, both before and after the relocation. At headquarters, where Black employees had composed more than 20% of the staff, the drop off was particularly steep. More than half of BLM’s Black headquarters employees left the agency during the relocation.
GAO faulted BLM for not being more intentional in its workforce planning, noting it had no strategic roadmap for recruiting and developing staff. BLM offices recently brushed up their organizational charts, but the auditors said that was insufficient for long-term planning and the agency agreed.
Laura Daniel-Davis, Interior's principal deputy assistant secretary for land and mineral management, said, “BLM takes seriously its commitment to all aspects of workforce excellence,” and vowed to follow GAO’s advice.