When he rode into office (seriously, on a U.S. Park Police horse), Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke got a warm welcome from a couple hundred headquarters workers. Interior is a couple blocks from the White House and across the street from the Office of Personnel Management. Some of them were there too. He was obviously touched by it and mentioned it to friends.
Zinke had everything. Arguably the coolest Cabinet officer in a long, long time.
He had been a popular politician serving in the Montana Senate and later as its lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Unlike most American males, he not only served in the military, but was a member of the elite Navy SEALs. Like other Interior secretaries, he was from west of the Mississippi. And unlike his predecessor, Sally Jewell, who was born in England, he is in the presidential succession line. So far, so good. But…
Just one apparent drawback. It turns out that 30 percent of the nearly 70,000 members of his crew at the department are “not loyal to the flag.” In a speech reported by the Associated Press on Sept. 25, Zinke, speaking to an oil industry group, likened the department to a pirate ship that captures a ship at sea “and only the captain and the first mate row over” to finish the job. Like, walk the plank?
Zinke has reshuffled the poop deck where most members of the career Senior Executive Service are. While not unusual for a new administration, Interior’s IG is checking to see if it was done properly and for good reason, or whether it was to insulate or isolate certain career civil servants who haven’t gotten with the new program.
But the real problem may be what do we do with 21,000 workers (30 percent of the workforce) who aren’t loyal. Does that make them simply drones? Or potentially dangerous? Can we trust them? And with what? And if they are disloyal, either actively or passively, what does that mean for the government? And the public? Does being loyal mean to the president, the secretary, their bureau chief, Congress, the agency mission, or us, members of the public? Or all of them? And who decides who’s loyal, or not? And to what?
Think about it. Next to the U.S. Postal Service, the Department of Interior — like Social Security and the IRS — has more interaction with the general public than most any other federal operation. What if the park ranger who welcomes you and your family at Great Falls, or Mammoth Cave, or Yellowstone isn’t loyal? And how will we know before it is too late? Before we’ve been led down the wrong trail, or directed to outdoor bathrooms that are locked?
Think about that for a while.
Trump administration officials have targeted Interior, along with the EPA, State Department, and other agencies as ripe for a downsizing. That could involve buyouts ($25,000 before taxes to retire), layoffs (RIFs) and use of attrition. Or a combination of the three.
In the meantime, if 30 percent of the employees at the rather bland Interior Department are not loyal, what are the numbers at HUD, Health and Human Services, the EEOC and other places?