Monday, March 9, 2020

BLM move to Grand Junction criticized in congressional watchdog report

Posted By on Mon, Mar 9, 2020 at 12:30 PM

click to enlarge The BLM will move its Washington, D.C. headquarters to an office in Grand Junction. - U.S. BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
  • U.S. Bureau of Land Management
  • The BLM will move its Washington, D.C. headquarters to an office in Grand Junction.

Both President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, have touted a decision to move the Bureau of Land Management's headquarters to Grand Junction from Washington, D.C. to keep the agency more focused on the areas it serves.

"Today is a historic day for our nation’s public lands, western states, and the people of Colorado," Gardner said in a tweet the day the move was announced. Other Colorado lawmakers, including Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and Republican Reps. Scott Tipton and Doug Lamborn, have also expressed their support.

But in a recent report, the federal Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, criticized the Interior Department decision.

"BLM minimally or did not address key practices for involving employees and key stakeholders in the process of developing" agency reforms including relocation, the report found. The GAO also notes that the BLM didn't adequately explain how it would measure the benefits of transferring staff — which, it claimed, would include better management, communications and customer service.

The BLM has about 10,000 employees, 97 percent of whom are already located in the western U.S., where the agency manages around 245 million acres of public land for uses such as energy extraction, mining, timber harvesting, livestock grazing and outdoor recreation.

The decision to move BLM staff from D.C. to the new Grand Junction headquarters, as well as Western offices in Denver and Phoenix, involved relocating 311 positions — or 179 people, since many of those positions were vacant — by July 2020, according to the GAO report.

On Sept. 18, the BLM notified D.C. staff that their positions would be relocated, the report says, and sent them a memo on Nov. 12 giving them 30 days to accept or decline the reassignment. They would have an additional 90 days to move West.

"BLM also created a consideration request form intended to allow employees to ask for extension of their scheduled report date," the report adds. "According to agency officials, employees could also use these forms to ask for reassignments to other positions, considerations of other geographic locations, and reasonable accommodations."

But only about half accepted the reassignment. Another 81 either declined or left their positions, according to the GAO report.

The GAO also wanted more detailed justification for the move based on performance measures:

"BLM developed 5-year and 20-year analyses in which it calculated the cost differential between keeping staff in Washington, D.C., and relocating them to Grand Junction and field locations," the report says. "However, these analyses did not include justifications or explanations for assumptions made. For example, the analyses assumed a baseline attrition rate of 25 percent for positions slated to be relocated. In addition, BLM did not conduct a sensitivity analysis. These analyses also did not include other costs, such as travel to Washington, D.C., from all the new staff locations, or factors such as the effect of staff relocation on productivity."

In its Feb. 28 response to a draft version of the GAO's report, the BLM said it had developed "outcome-oriented performance measures," but would take the office's recommendations under consideration and "follow through as appropriate."

Regarding the GAO's recommendation that the BLM create a strategic workforce plan to fill vacant positions, the agency said that it "has a comprehensive recruitment process underway."

The Center for Western Priorities, a conservation policy and advocacy organization that has long opposed moving the BLM's headquarters, issued a statement further decrying the decision after the report was released.

"In dismantling the BLM headquarters in such a shoddy, irresponsible way, [Interior] Secretary [David] Bernhardt is playing with people’s livelihoods and threatening our public lands," Executive Director Jennifer Rokala said in the statement.

“The GAO report is more proof that Secretary Bernhardt’s only goal was an exodus of civil servants who he thinks stand in the way of doing favors for his former corporate clients,” she added, referring to Bernhardt's past experience as an oil and gas lobbyist. Some Democratic lawmakers have pushed for an investigation into Bernhardt's potential conflicts of interest in this area.

In a March 6 statement following the report's release, the BLM had a different take:

"We have received the GAO report, and while it is worth noting that the report did not fully appreciate the fundamental difference between a relocation and a reorganization, the report did thoroughly refute Chairman [Rep. Raul] Grijalva [D-Arizona]’s assertion that this effort was 'hastily planned,' the statement said. "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, Colorado and its employees to other Western states is commonsense, and the Bureau will be better positioned to better serve the American public through this relocation in executing its multiple use mission.”

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