More guardrails needed for any potential agency relocations, federal advocates say

A rulemaking petition calls on OPM to establish a clear, standardized process anytime federal officials may be considering agency relocations.

After a few agency relocations in 2019 led to major staff attrition, federal employee advocates are now calling for clearer guardrails to try to prevent similar negative outcomes in the future.

The Office of Personnel Management should take the lead on implementing stricter guidelines around any potential agency relocations, according to a recent petition for proposed rulemaking from non-profit, non-partisan organization Democracy Forward.

The rulemaking petition specifically calls on OPM to establish a clear, standard process among agencies any time they may look to relocate or move a federal office. The proposed process would require agencies to consult employees, analyze costs and consider how the move would impact staffing and attrition, all before the agency announces a relocation.

The petition also calls for agencies to document evidence and data to back up the purpose of the relocation. And in cases where retention is a concern, agencies would have to consider offering flexibilities such as remote work where possible. Agencies would also have to have a clear human capital management plan related to the possible relocation, according to the petition.

Without more specific guidelines in place, Democracy Forward said in its petition that stability, expertise and institutional knowledge could suffer as a result of agency relocations, ultimately contributing to a decline in the public’s trust in government.

“The petition for rulemaking that we submitted to OPM would be another step in helping fortify that important element of our functioning government,” Skye Perryman, president and CEO of Democracy Forward, said in an interview. “We believe this petition is a straightforward and basic step, but it’s a critical one to help prevent any future government from using poorly planned and executed office relocations as a way of stripping the work Americans rely on.”

The National Treasury Employees Union is now joining Democracy Forward’s calls in the petition, further urging action from OPM on potential future agency relocations. NTEU National President Doreen Greenwald said the petition would establish important guardrails, notably with the proposed requirement for agencies to engage with their own employees before initiating a relocation.

“These protective measures would help ensure that any relocations are not taken for improper reasons, such as undermining our civil service,” Greenwald wrote in March 20 letter to OPM Director Kiran Ahuja. “Federal employees and the public deserve a stable, professional workforce.”

OPM did not immediately respond to Federal News Network’s request for comment on any plans to address the petition or possibly undertake a rulemaking change as a result.

Prior agency relocations led to attrition

The petition comes largely in response to 2019 relocations of the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters office, as well as two components of the Department of Agriculture: The Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

USDA’s decision during the Trump administration to relocate two research agencies to Kansas City, Missouri, resulted in major staff attrition, with 40% of ERS staff and 60% of NIFA staff leaving their jobs.

USDA largely recovered its staff numbers by September 2021, but the two agencies are still facing long-term consequences. Both workforces are now less diverse and less experienced, the Government Accountability Office found. The percentage of Black employees at NIFA, for instance, dropped from 47% to 19% after the relocation.

In 2022, GAO also reported that although USDA had outlined a plan for narrowing down its selection to Kansas City, the department ultimately strayed from its plan and didn’t follow its own criteria — notably by not accounting for staff attrition.

Additionally, USDA’s relocation of NIFA and ERS later revealed a violation the Antideficiency Act (ADA), as USDA failed to meet congressional notification requirements in its plans to relocate.

Aligning with efforts to ‘fortify’ civil service

The goals of the rulemaking petition more broadly align with other Biden administration efforts to prevent what Perryman said are “highly concerning” possible changes to the civil service in a future administration.

Most notably, OPM already has plans underway aiming to protect career federal employees against the effects of a possible Schedule F revival.

“We are encouraged by the steps that OPM has taken in order to help protect the civil service to try to prevent something like what the prior administration did — with respect to Schedule F — from going into effect again,” Perryman said. “We do see this petition as another positive step that could help fortify the independence of our civil service and the ability of our government to operate effectively.”

Concerns about agency relocations have gained more recent attention on Capitol Hill as well. A bicameral bill, called the Conducting Oversight to Secure Transparency (COST) of Relocations Act, would require agencies to conduct studies and create a detailed reports of the costs and benefits of relocating — prior to making the move.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) first introduced the bill in February 2023. So far, there has been no further action on the legislation, but a staff member for Wexton said the issue continues to be a priority.

“The COST of Relocations Act would shine a light on agency relocations,” Wexton said in a statement. “Requiring a comprehensive and public cost-benefit analysis of agency relocations prevents partisan efforts to undermine the mission of our federal agencies and ensures taxpayer dollars are spent appropriately.”

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