The administration’s assertion that moving the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters nearly 2,000 miles away to Grand Junction, Colo., and other areas would “maximize services to the American people” was among several assumptions the Interior Department failed to explain, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Officials at BLM said relocating its headquarters to the region where its services are delivered would increase “BLM’s presence closest to the resources” the agency manages. The bureau oversees 245 million acres of federal land and a vast array of underground energy resources mostly in 12 Western states. Relocation would improve management, oversight, communications and customer services, the officials said.
But the officials failed to implement performance measures to show how they would meet those broad goals, the report said. Performance goals would show whether the move was effective.
In addition, “BLM has not completed a strategic workforce plan that demonstrates how it will recruit for and fill vacant positions resulting from the relocation,” the report said. Of the 311 positions moved west, more than a third already were vacant before the relocation was announced, the report said. Ninety people accepted their reassignments and 81 declined.
“We requested information on performance measures, but as of February 20, 2020, BLM had not provided this to us,” the report said. “BLM has not substantially followed key practices for effective agency reforms relevant to relocating employees.”
Critics cited another reason for the relocation — politics. Interior told employees in July they would be relocated at a future date, about a year after then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke claimed nearly a third of his staff was disloyal to President Trump and reluctant to relax federal regulations to permit increased mining for coal and drilling for natural gas and oil on public land.
During his remarks to the National Petroleum Council, Zinke promised a “huge” change by restructuring staff positions and possibly shifting decision-making positions at BLM to the Bureau of Reclamation in the West. “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag,” Zinke said in September 2017.
About 10,000 people work for the Bureau of Land Management. Ninety-seven percent of those workers already were located in the West before the bureau’s relocation.
GAO undertook its investigation at the request of Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who claimed the employee relocation was hastily carried out.
In a statement, bureau officials disagreed with some of the report’s findings but said it vindicated them against Grijalva’s assertion: “The report recognizes that the BLM established goals and outcomes for the initiative, used data and evidence to inform its decision-making, took steps to manage and monitor the relocation process, and adopted measures to ensure strategic workforce management.
“The relocation of the Bureau’s headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo., and its employees to other Western states is common sense, and the Bureau will be better positioned to better serve the American public through this relocation in executing its multiple use mission,” according to the statement.
Grijalva saw the report differently. “This administration has created an intentionally abusive and cruel relationship between the federal government and its employees,” the lawmaker said in a statement Friday. “BLM has already lost dozens of key employees and the administration, like an incompetent con man, is desperately spinning it as a great opportunity to find new people.”
Employees in Washington joined Grijalva in calling the action hasty. Several employees who met with The Washington Post last fall said the bureau’s managers first told them during two staff meetings ending in July that they would have a year to relocate if the action moved forward.
“I don’t think the senior leadership expected the level of questioning and concerns being raised by the staff,” said an employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by the Interior Department. “There were definitely angry people at that meeting.”
In November, he said, employees were presented with reassignments thousands of miles away and told they had 30 days to accept or reject them. No answer was considered a rejection.
Relocated employees included parents who stood to violate custody agreements with ex-partners if they moved. At least one woman who cared for an ailing mother worried about what to do. African American employees who lived in a diverse city throughout their lives faced moving to cities where almost no black people lived. Couples faced being separated and having to uproot their children from their schools.
Only 60 workers would remain in Washington. About 40 would be placed in Grand Junction and more than 250 would move to the National Operations Center in Denver or the National Training Center in Phoenix.
“Morale is terrible,” the employee said. “There are many people if they’ve been lucky who found jobs with other federal agencies. They’re gone. A lot of people are retiring to get away from this nonsense. It is a ghost town here. I wish you could see how desolate it is here.”
Testifying before congressional hearings this week, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and other officials could not say how many of those people are still looking for new jobs or were reassigned to other federal positions in Washington.
The bureau said the move would result in some cost savings, but the GAO was not convinced.
Officials calculated the cost difference between moving the staff and keeping it in D.C., but the calculation was based on unexplained assumptions, such as the belief that a quarter of the relocated jobs would disappear because of attrition. But the bureau did not factor the need for relocated employees to travel back to Washington at times to meet with lawmakers, members of other agencies and Interior officials the way they do now.
As it considered reforming the D.C. office, the bureau “did not address key practices for involving employees and key stakeholders in the process of developing” the changes, the report said.