How can BLM manage with many vacancies after headquarters relocation?

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The Bureau of Land Management, part of the Interior Department, famously relocated from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colorado, in 2019. It hasn’t gone smoothly. The agency is rife with vacancies because many people didn’t want to move. The Government Accountability Office now has several recommendations for how BLM can manage back to normal. For more, the GAO’s director of Natural Resources and Environment Issues, Frank Rusco, spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Rusco, good to have you back.

Frank Rusco: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

Tom Temin: And give us the numbers here because it looks like they had many, many vacancies in the BLM, still do, but they have trouble tracking them. So what did you find top line here?

Frank Rusco: Yeah. At the highest level in the last administration, at the beginning of the administration in 2017, they put a hiring freeze on basically all the executive branch agencies and Interior was one of those. And then from that point, until July 2019, when they sort of announced we’re going to move to Grand Junction, they had already lost about 135 of headquarter staff, and that’s out of a total of just over 500. So they’d already lost a significant amount of their staff. And they didn’t replace them because after the hiring freeze, they also imposed on Interior a requirement that any new hire had to be approved at the highest level, and they just didn’t approve very many. So they already had a lot of vacancies, then what happened is they announced this move, and a large number of other people left in between the time when they announced the move. And when the move actually occurred, a lot of experienced staff left headquarters to work elsewhere in D.C., so they didn’t want to move out to Grand Junction.

Tom Temin: And that must have had some effect on the functioning of the agency with more than 25% of the people simply not there.

Frank Rusco: In the end, only about a quarter of the people that have the positions that were still there that weren’t required to move actually did. So three quarters of the people did not take that offer to move either to Grand Junction or the other state offices. One of the results of that was that a lot of very experienced people left. And you just can’t lose a lot, it would be like losing your company and you lost three quarters of your executives. And you’re trying to run your company, but you’ve lost a lot of sort of the knowledge of how things run. And that’s one of the things that happened.

Tom Temin: Now we’re talking about 500. But that’s only the headquarter staff because as you point out in the report, BLM actually has almost 9,000 full time employees. So what happened to the rest of them? Were they not led well or were they lacking leadership?

Frank Rusco: Well, what happened was, as you mentioned, headquarters, a little small part of the agency, headquarters basically works in D.C., they work with Congress, they worked with the Office of Management and Budget. They’re basically a policymaking and regulatory and direction of the agency, high level direction of the agency. So in losing a lot of those people, you lost a lot of that expertise. And then moving the other ones out away from D.C., they’re not in the places where they might be coordinating with other agencies or talking to Congress, and on a sort of short turnaround, oh yeah can you come up and talk to us about this program or that program. But then when they lost a lot of that expertise, they basically filled those positions with temporary details from other places. Sometimes those detailees would keep their other responsibilities, and then try to pick up some of the slack. And everyone we talked to at BLM basically said that the increased use of detailees caused a lack of continuity, sometimes you lost expertise that it’ll take a while to build back up.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Frank Rusco, he is the GAO is director of natural resources and environment issues. So it’s really not the distance to Grand Junction that’s the issue, because we learned in the mass teleworking of the last 18 months how productive government can be when people aren’t in person, it was really the loss of personnel that was the issue here – essentially?

Frank Rusco: That was the main thing, and the fact that with the hiring freeze, they had already had a bunch of vacancies, and then the move cost a lot more vacancies. And with that, they lost a lot of just the kind of skills that you need to run the agency efficiently.

Tom Temin: And your recommendations though center partly on the need to be able to track vacancies and have a system for understanding your vacancies, which even as they had a lot of them, they had trouble tracking. So what are your top line recommendations here?

Frank Rusco: We found that Interior couldn’t sort of tell us on a position by position basis, is this run by a detailee or someone who’s been in a position for a long time because they’re not really tracking those kinds of moves. And obviously, they should be because you want to know where are the people that understand how to run the agency and where people that maybe need some extra help. So we recommended that they start tracking those vacancies. But a higher level Interior doesn’t have what we call a strategic workforce plan. And what we mean by that is, you want to go through and figure out what skills do I need and what positions, and in what part of the organization? And then what do I have? And then make a plan to fill the gap. And after the move, Interior had a lot of gaps in BLM, but they don’t have a strategic plan yet to sort of look at that on a position by position basis and say, where do I need the skills, how do I get them?

Tom Temin: Yes, in the sense that this issue predated even the Trump administration move, I think is shown by one of the charts in the report that there were 100 and some vacancies at headquarters at the time of the announcement of the relocation, and then it rose dramatically. So they had this problem pre existing.

Frank Rusco: Right. The last administration put in a hiring freeze at the beginning. And then basically, as people either left through natural attrition or decided they wanted to work somewhere else, they weren’t replaced. So by the time the move was announced, there already is, as you said, there’s about 135 people that were already missing.

Tom Temin: And is there another element to this? The fact that the Trump administration changed BLM policy from a strategic standpoint, as it did with many other organs of government pretty dramatically from the administration before that — so could that have exacerbated things? And maybe the people that were there, the legacy senior people, said, you know what, I don’t want this relocation in the first place, I’m just gonna leave. Was there an element of maybe I’ll show you or sabotage to the idea of moving to Grand Junction, do you think?

Frank Rusco: Well, I’m not sure I can comment on that. I will say that during the course administration, as you know GAO works to audit federal agencies and make sure they’re working efficiently. And we are often in touch with senior level officials at the agencies. And in BLM, there was a real drop in morale in general, and this predated the move. So I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people left just because of that.

Tom Temin: And now the Biden administration has announced that BLM headquarters will relocate back to Washington. So are you hopeful that we’ll get maybe some of those older people to come back and maybe they can start bringing down this vacancy level?

Frank Rusco: Yes, it could. I think in some ways, it’s still going to be difficult. BLM still has about 100 vacancies, even today. And in part, I think that’s because the new administration has wanted to sort of decide what they’re going to do with headquarters before they hire people. But on the other hand, you lost people, they went to other jobs. Will they come back? I don’t know, remains to be seen.

Tom Temin: I guess you have to check out Grand Junction, though, before you can pass judgment on it. It’s probably a lovely place to live.

Frank Rusco: Yeah, I’m sure it’s a very nice place to live. But I think if you’re talking about moving a whole body of people from a city like Washington D.C., they may have family ties, they may have kids in school, who knows what. But that’s a big ask. It’s from a big city to a fairly small place.

Tom Temin: Yeah, that’s a tough one. Frank Rusco is director of natural resources and environment issues at the Government Accountability Office. Thanks so much.

Frank Rusco: You bet. My pleasure.

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