BLM pursued westward relocation without implementing GAO’s recommendations

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

As part of an Interior Department reorganization, the Trump administration moved the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management out of town — out west, specifically, to Grand Junction, Colorado. It didn’t work out exactly as planned, according to a look-see by the Government Accountability Office. For more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the director of GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment team, Anne-Marie Fennell.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Fennell, good to have you back.

Anne-Marie Fennell: Nice to be with you, Tom.

Tom Temin: So to begin with, the GAO didn’t look at whether this was a good or bad or wise or unwise policy. You simply looked at how they executed on it. Is that a fair way to put it?

Anne-Marie Fennell: Correct. We looked at the implementation of the relocation, using some key practices that we have developed. So basically, over time we’ve looked at a lot of agency reorganizations, and we’ve spoken with many experts in this area. And as a result, we’ve identified a number of key practices that can help ensure these reforms are effective and that’s what we did in this particular case.

Tom Temin: And what was BLM trying to do exactly because, many, many of their people already lived and worked out west because that’s where the land that they oversee is for 99% of it anyhow.

Anne-Marie Fennell: Yes, that is correct. BLM’s relocating more than 300 positions from Washington, D.C., to offices that it has out west, including 39 positions that it will relocate to its new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colorado. According to BLM, the goals of this reorganization include delegating more responsibility to the field, maximizing services to the American people and increasing BLM’s presence closest to the resources it manages. However, we found that BLM didn’t undertake this effort in a way that was substantially consistent with leading practices for agency reform and reorganization.

Tom Temin: And one of those leading practices on which you found that they had the least adherence was involving the people affected in planning and communicating about this whole thing. Tell us more about that one.

Anne-Marie Fennell: Yes, that’s correct. In particular our prior work has shown that it’s important for agencies to directly and continuously involve employees and other stakeholders in the development of major reforms. But BLM did not provide us with any evidence that they had engaged with employees other than management in developing its reorganization, or that it had the kind of two-way communications that would be needed to get employee buy in.

Tom Temin: And a lot of people ended up not going, too. Is that correct?

Anne-Marie Fennell: Yes. As of Jan. 23, BLM had provided us with data that they had more than 130 vacancies before announcing the reorganization. Of the remaining about 179 staff that needed to relocate, at that time, 90 had accepted the reassignment and 81 had either declined the reassignment or separated from their position, and some others fell into other categories. But what’s interesting to note is that in testimony last week that Interior gave, it said that about 80 had accepted relocation and the rest have retired or taken other jobs. So it sounds like more staff have decided against relocations since even the January timeframe.

Tom Temin: Right, and that could be a direct result of not having that process for developing and involving the key stakeholders. And there’s several other best practices that GAO has identified that none of them were substantially addressed to use, GAO’s term, in how BLM went about this.

Anne-Marie Fennell: Yes, that’s correct. So just to give you an example, one of the key practices is for establishing goals and outcomes. BLM did establish broad goals for reorganization. However, it then established performance measures that could be used to assess the effectiveness of the reforms. In addition, BLM considered some costs and benefits of the reorganization, but its analysis did not include complete information on the assumptions made, the methodology used, relevant cost, such as travel costs to Washington, D.C., from the new staff locations. Those were recognized conceptually in a memo that we reviewed, but the costs were not included in the quantitative cost benefit analysis.

Tom Temin: All right, we’re speaking with Anne Marie Finnell. She’s director of the Natural Resourcess and Environment team at the Government Accountability Office. This thing is largely done now, but you still had several recommendations. Let’s go over what the main ones were, and is there anything that BLM can do about them at this point?

Anne-Marie Fennell: Yes. Although BLM’s already made the decision to relocate, and they can’t go back and implement some of the key practices for agents to reform, we did find three areas that we thought improvement remained possible. And those three included establishing outcome-oriented performance measures to assess the effectiveness of the reorganization, develop an implementation plan for the reorganization that included milestones and deliverables to track and communicate their progress. And then develop strategic workforce plan that addresses how it will recruit for and fill the vacant positions resulting from the relocations. In addition, we also made another recommendation to the Department of the Interior, because we understood that Interior was considering reorganizing other bureaus, and as a result, we recommended that the secretary ensure that bureau leadership incorporate key practices and for effective reorganization and reforms before implementing the reorganization activities at any other bureaus that they may be considering.

Tom Temin: And for the people that have relocated and are presumably working in Grand Junction, do you feel it’s worthwhile to keep monitoring their performance and their general satisfaction to make sure that going forward, that they are effective, having been moved way, way, way far away from where they started out?

Anne-Marie Fennell: Yes, I think that is important for us to look at as we follow up on the implementation of these recommendations and plan additional work to look at the relocation and the effects that it might have.

Tom Temin: And it’s probably fair to say that Congress will be more likely to go along with these kinds of things if the costs and the methodologies for developing them are much clearer and they can make the case better.

Anne-Marie Fennell: Yes, that’s correct. We know that there have been a lot of questions about this particular effort by the Congress, and we would anticipate that there, for any other efforts that are going to be made in the future, that there will be additional questions. And so we believe that the key practices that we’ve developed in terms of reorganization reform would be very helpful for agencies to look at and consider as they implement such efforts.

Tom Temin: And what did BLM and Interior officials say when you presented all of this?

Anne-Marie Fennell: BLM acknowledged our recommendations, but they haven’t said specifically whether they will implement them. So we’ll continue to monitor to see what progress, if any, they make in terms of addressing our recommendations.

Tom Temin: And Marie Fennell is director of the Natural Resources and Environment team at the Government Accountability Office. Thanks so much.

Anne-Marie Fennell: Thank you, Tom.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to that report at www.federalnewsnetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone. Stay up to date on your agency’s latest responses to coronavirus. Visit our Special Resource page at www.federalnewsnetwork.com.