Interior Department Reorganization Plans Draws Criticism, Praise At Oversight Hearing
An Interior Department employee touted the progress made in improving communications and stakeholder engagement across the department’s numerous agencies in a congressional hearing Tuesday, while a former employee criticized the handling of the reorganization launched under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Democrats at the House Natural Resources Committee held a Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing titled, “No Road Map, No Destination, No Justification: The Implementation and Impacts of the Reorganization of the Department of the Interior.”
“One of the first things [former Interior Secretary] Ryan Zinke did after becoming secretary was trying to implement a massive solution in search of a problem,” Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman TJ Cox (D-Cali.) said in his opening statement. “The weakness in that approach to reorganizing the 70,000 employees of the Department of the Interior became clear early in the process,” he added.
Cox said that Zinke’s Interior reorganization plan lacked supporting data, cost-benefit analyses, or other supplemental information to justify the massive undertaking.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), however, hailed the reorganizational effort while agreeing that the large plan did deserve appropriate Congressional consultation and “scrutiny.”
“Transforming the Department of the Interior is an important topic that does deserve additional Congressional scrutiny,” Gohmert said. “Reorganization of the Department of Interior is just a small part in a larger effort of this administration to overhaul the entire federal government, to make it more efficient and effective.”
Gohmert pointed to backlogs like deferred maintenance of national parks and acquisition of new property.
“I welcome the reorganization. I think it’s past time such should have been done,” he added.
Zinke left as head of the agency late last year with a record of change across many departmental categories, from improving and streamlining Bureau of Land Management quarterly lease sales and permitting, to beginning the conversation about relocating the BLM headquarters away from Washington, D.C. and into any number of prospective Western states. When initial plans for Interior’s reorganization along watershed boundaries was met with concern, a new proposal to split regions by state boundaries was introduced, with stakeholder input from groups like the Western Governors’ Association, including former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Scott Cameron, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget at Interior told the committee that the “Department welcomed the opportunity to thoughtfully reorganize, as our structure and functions have not fundamentally changed in half a century.”
“Our goal was to increase inter-bureau collaboration and improve interoperability across the Department,” he added. That meant delivering a “transformation vision” for the agency and bureaus managed by the Interior Department, “to improve inter-bureau coordination, shift resources to front line activities that interact with the public, bring decision-makers closer to those who are affected by our decisions, and leverage technology to drive management improvements” that benefit employees and the public alike.
Cameron said the 170-year-old department “must evolve to capitalize on new opportunities, address modern threats, and meet the needs of a 21st century citizen.”
Other witnesses did not share this assessment, taking the process to task based on claims of limited data and insufficient stakeholder involvement.
“There is little detailed information about the proposed DOI reorganization in the public domain – thus, the title of this hearing – and therefore my testimony will primarily address the principles, process, and implementation that should guide the thinking and actions of the personnel undertaking a significant government reorganization,” said Michael Bromwich, who served at the Interior Department from 2010 through 2011.
Bromwich pointed to work he helped coordinate during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, in the Minerals Management Service.
“By the time I arrived at DOI six weeks after the initial explosion, discussions had already begun about the possibility of reorganizing MMS to eliminate its structural conflicts. Secretary Ken Salazar was on record as favoring a restructuring. Even so, I was given the discretion to decide, after my team’s own review and analysis, whether to undertake a reorganization,” Bromwich said.
“I do not take lightly reorganization proposals. Indeed, I have a bias against them. They are disruptive, expensive, frustrating – and tend to have an adverse effect on morale. They create uncertainty and divert resources from the mission. They frequently fail to achieve their objectives. In my experience, reorganizations are too often undertaken for reasons of executive vanity,” Bromwich added, saying they are “frequently developed and implemented in haste, inadequately vetted, based on inadequate analysis, and insufficient consultations with stakeholders, including the personnel who will be responsible for implementing them.”
Instead, a better way to reorganize is to let the circumstances and research determine the path, including a call for reorganization. In his example, that led to splitting MMS into the Office Natural Resources Revenue, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Bromwich encouraged the process to be open and transparent. “An ambitious reorganization of the kind that DOI has proposed must be based on detailed data collection and analysis, sustained consultation with affected internal and stakeholders, and broad sharing of information with the Congress and with the public. And for the reorganization to succeed, its architects must be willing to make changes and adjustments, and even reverse course, if proposed changes run into unanticipated obstacles, or simply don’t make sense,” Bromwich said.
Harold Frazier, Chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, expressed disappointment in Zinke’s outreach and the overall efforts of the Interior Department, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“Interior’s Reorganization was not thought through. The secretary started with the idea that one Federal official is the same as another. No plan was presented—just a “river basin” map, two or three PowerPoint slides, and slogans. “100-year plan,” “streamline,” “efficiency,” “No RIF.” Secretary Zinke pledged to work with Indian Tribes as “equals.” He said, “sovereignty must mean something.” Yet, he compared Interior to the military and said we had too many senior people. “We need more boots on the ground,” he said,” Frazier told the committee.
“We don’t need to waste time and $60 million on Interior reorganization,” he added.
Among the priorities established by Zinke during his tenure was reducing the maintenance backlog at the country’s National Park Service (NPS) system, which Interior estimated to be around $16 billion through the middle of 2018, with $11 billion needed for deferred maintenance alone.
Cameron defended the reassessment of boundaries, as Interior added bureau after bureau, often in overlapping and redundant fashion, with complicated systems for communication and other procedures that slowed decision-making and made the system less responsive to residents, stakeholders, and the public at large.
The primary goal of any reorganization, he said, was to “improve coordination and collaboration” between the bureaus that will streamline the workflow for employees and allow them to take advantage of improved information technologies and other resources.
Fewer regions and shared geographical boundaries, rather than ad hoc organization, would improve responsiveness to the public. Cameron said that eight listening sessions for employees was conducted, as well as 18 sessions, both formal and informal, with tribal offices and members. State, local, and tribal governments were included, such as the Western Governor’s Association, nonprofit groups, and a Conservation Roundtable in May 2018.
“Accomplishment to date include the following: after working closely with stakeholders and Congress, the unified regions map was finalized on August 22, 2018,” Cameron said, including adhering to the revised state-oriented maps, except where “over-riding water resource issues” justified an adjustment.
Cameron said $17.5 million in FY 2019 was allocated for the reorganization, which is ongoing.