Interior’s Obtuse Reorganization Has Blurry Focus

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For Immediate Release: Aug 14, 2019
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

New Layers of Regional Bureaucracy Larded on Top of Current Structure

Washington, DC — Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Interior finalized a new organizational structure with twelve new regional centers based upon “watersheds.” Rather than streamlining and improving coordination as promised, this new national superstructure will do just the opposite, predicts Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

In an all-employee email, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced the consolidation of 49 offices across 8 bureaus into 12 “Unified Regions,” including –

  • Appointment of “12 Field Special Assistants (Field Assistants)” to oversee each region. Each new Special Assistant “will typically serve a 1-year assignment”;
  • Creation of 12 Regional Field Committees “comprised of the senior executives appointed by the heads of Bureaus and Offices with responsibilities for a given Unified Region, as well as the Regional Solicitor” serving unspecified terms; and
  • Exclusion of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Special Trustee for American Indians, and Bureau of Indian Education, leaving them untouched, apparently for political reasons.

“Like shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic, this intricate movement diverts from far more pressing needs while accomplishing little,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse. “Interior is spending millions of taxpayer dollars on this bureaucratic minuet without identifying a single concrete result.”

Precisely how this reorganization purports to help Interior decision-making is unclear. For example, the U.S.-Mexican border is divided among three regions. Moreover, only three of the 12 new Special Assistants come from land management agencies, with half coming from either the Office of the Secretary or the Solicitor’s Office.

The reorganization also seems at odds with the recent decision to relocate the Bureau of Land Management headquarters from Washington, DC to Grand Junction, Colorado. As part of this move, BLM is slated to add more staff to every Western state office, rather than the new regional centers. In addition, Bernhardt indicates more moves are afoot, as plans to shift “elements of the USGS [U.S. Geological Survey] headquarters to the Western U.S. are still being finalized.”

“This reorganization is the opposite of streamlining as these new layers of management do not replace existing layers; nor is decision-making decentralized, as the real decisions will not be made by these one-year assistants but will still be made by Bernhardt and his inner circle,” added Whitehouse, noting that several Interior bureaus still lack permanent directors or even nominees. “Instead of greater accountability, none of these faceless new assistants is subject to Senate confirmation or other public review.”

Decision-making is one thing; implementing those decisions is another. PEER research points to declining staff levels across Interior, including shrinking cadres of available field supervisors. The impacts of these shortages in the field may be aggravated by yet another tier of governance.


Read the Bernhardt reorganization announcement

View the DOI reorganization backgrounders

See BLM Headquarters move rationale

Revisit the vacuum of confirmed Interior leaders

Look at shrinking Interior staff levels

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