Members of Congress looking for more details about the Interior Department’s reorganization plan —again — came up empty-handed this week.
The department announced plans last August to establish 12 new unified regions across nearly all of Interior’s bureaus, except those that fall under the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs. These regions are supposed to guide how Interior manages its resources, makes decisions and solves problems.
The goal, Interior has said, is to move away from its existing, scattered organization of eight bureaus across 49 U.S. regions, and to consolidate and localize decision-making.
Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke first announced his intention in 2017 to reorganize the department. But Congress said it’s been kept in the dark since then.
“We have not seen data to show that there is a problem,” Rep. TJ Cox (D-Calif.), chairman of the Natural Resources Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, said Tuesday at a hearing on Interior’s reorganization plan. “We have not seen data to prove that a reorganization was the way to solve the problem, nor have we seen a cost-benefit analysis or workforce planning data, no measurable goals [and] no comprehensive plan.”
The committee has asked for a wide range of documents about Interior’s reorganization plan. But Cox said the committee simplified and narrowed its request to just one document: The agency reform plan that Interior sent to the Office of Management and Budget back in 2017. The President’s March 2017 executive order on reorganization tasked each agency to develop and submit a reform plan to OMB.
“We know it exists,” Cox said of the document. “We have the email that says it’s ready for final delivery. We even gave Interior the file name of the document so they didn’t have to spend time looking for it. It’s ‘AgencyReformPlanFinal917.pdf.’ I’m not sure how much easier or quicker we could have made it, but we still don’t have it.”
When asked Tuesday morning by the oversight and investigations subcommittee whether Interior would share its OMB reorganization plan with members, the department didn’t commit to it.
“I’m not in a position at this point to promise you that we’re going to give you the document,” Scott Cameron, Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, told the subcommittee. “I will promise you that we will be responding to the letter.”
The ongoing battle between Congress and Interior to unearth more details about the department’s reorganization plans resembles the one that the House Democrats are waging with the Agriculture Department over its proposed relocation of two USDA components.
The House Appropriations Agriculture, Rural Development and Food and Drug Administration Subcommittee has also repeatedly asked USDA for a cost-benefit analysis of its proposed plan to move most employees at the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
Several House Democrats, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have urged appropriators not to give the department the $25 million in funding it had requested for the USDA relocation.
But unlike USDA, the Interior Department has already received some congressional funding to get started with its reorganization. The department received $17.5 million as part of the 2019 spending deal back in February.
“We only got that money around two months ago, so I think it’s unreasonable that we’d have it all spent and clearly defined by now,” Cameron said.
Interior requested another $28 million for the reorg in the President’s 2020 budget proposal.
Democrats on the committee were and continue to be skeptical of the Interior reorganization. Besides Cameron, the three other witnesses were deeply critical of the reorg and the department’s planning and communication for the moves.
“You identify the problems and then you figure out a way to solve them,” said Michael Bromwich, an independent attorney and consultant. The Obama administration appointed him to lead Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“You don’t announce a global reorganization in response to vague concerns, maybe a small number, maybe a large number of specific concerns, if the reorganization is not designed to address them,” he added. “That’s why you have to have an analysis of what the problems are. If you are thinking of a reorganization before you announce it, you do that analysis, you publicize that analysis [and] you discuss the changes you’re considering with the stakeholders, particularly your own employees who are going to be responsible for implementing it.”
Republicans were more sympathetic.
“We are deeply in need of reorganization, but [like] the Chairman, I share the desire to see the final product as soon as we can get that so we can do proper oversight,” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said.
Members haven’t forgotten 2017 SES reassignments
The department has already begun to realign its functions into the 12 unified regions, which Cameron said represents the first part of the reorg plan.
In addition, contractors are finishing independent studies of Interior’s procurement, human capital and IT to see how those functions could best be streamlined as shared services for all of the department’s bureaus and unified regions.
Interior isn’t proposing to change any statutory delegations or authorities for any of the bureaus, Cameron said. The bureau regional directors would continue to report to headquarters staff in Washington. Members of the Senior Executive Service are forming regional leadership teams and will choose one of their own to serve as regional director.
“We would have an Interior regional director who would be a coordinator in chief, a convener in chief, to pull his or her peers together to deal with common issues,” Cameron said. “Again, there’s more decision-making by career senior executives at the regional level [and] fewer issues kicked up to Washington.”
This premise resonated with Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the ranking member of the full House Natural Resources Committee.
“It is easy to work with the local officials,” he said. “They live in the community. They know the situations. They usually are the most creative. In almost any time we have a problem, it’s as those creations go up the food chain and end up in Washington.”
But some members are particularly cautious about Interior’s approach with the SES. The department’s inspector general said Interior didn’t document the reasoning or rationale for its decision to offer reassignments to 35 career senior executives nearly two years ago.
Interior’s career senior executives had previously said they’ve felt “left in the dark” about the agency’s reorganization plans, and some career executives had said they had “absolutely no involvement whatsoever” in crafting the original vision.
Cameron said top leadership later convened the department’s SES to discuss the Interior reorganization.
“We spent two days chatting with them,” he said. “They gave us lots of ideas, and we modified our original conception of the plan based on their feedback.”
Interior is also considering a move of Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Geological Survey headquarters elements out of the Washington area, likely to another western city.
Cameron said Interior is discussing the moves with BLM and USGS leadership and is searching for geographic options.
“USGS seems to be honing in on the Denver metropolitan area; BLM less so,” Cameron said. “We’re having conversations with the General Services Administration about the availability of office space in various locations and about the cost of office rent in various locations. BLM in particular is having conversations with headquarters staff about who might want to move west and who might want to go on a voluntary basis.”
Interior would realize a variety of savings by reorganizing and moving the headquarters elements of BLM and USGS west, Cameron added. Rental costs for the buildings are cheaper in most western cities than in the Washington area, he said. The relocation itself would save employees the time and costs of flying from the East to West coasts.
“Cost-of-living for our employees is a lot cheaper out west in most locations than it would be here,” Cameron said. “There are a list of a dozen or so variables that we’re looking at.”