IG: Interior failed to document SES reassignments

The Department of Interior recently reassigned about 10 percent of its senior executives without much advance planning and without documenting its reasons for doing so, according to the agency inspector general.

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Over the summer and fall of 2017, the Department of Interior failed to document its plan and reasons to reassign at least 27 senior executives, according to its inspector general.

"With no documented action plan for the reassignments and inconsistent statements from the [Executive Resources Board] regarding its rationale, we were prevented from making a clear determination whether or not the DOI met the legal requirements," the IG report stated.

In addition, Interior did not "gather the information needed to make informed decisions about the reassignments, nor did it communicate the decisions made with the SES corps or with most managers affected by the reassignments," the report said.

Between June 15 and Oct. 29, 2017, the board notified 35 senior executives they would be reassigned; it actually reassigned 27. Of the eight who ultimately weren’t reassigned, three resigned, two stayed in positions pending their retirement and three others had their reassignments rescinded due to a "domino effect" of another retirement.

Based on interviews with Executive Resources Board members, because there was no documentation, the stated reasons for the reassignments were “broad” and “inconsistent.” Board members pointed to length of tenure, transferring executives out of Washington, D.C., or moving them into different functional areas to “share knowledge” as reasons for the changes.

However, the senior executives themselves suspected other motivations.

In interviews, 17 senior executives “questioned whether these reassignments were political or punitive, based on a prior conflict with DOI leadership or on the senior executive’s nearness to retirement,” the report stated. Twelve told the IG they believed their reassignment may have been related to their prior work on climate change, energy or conservation.

Additionally, “when we asked the [board] members who in the Department leadership ordered the reassignment of senior executives, no one could provide an answer,” the report stated.

The IG also reported some of the reassignments didn’t appear to be based on employee qualification.

Senior Executives Association President Bill Valdez said of the findings, “This was a failure of the new political leadership at Interior to follow well-established practices that are designed to reduce the perception there’s political interference with the career SES.”

The reassignment notices caught senior executives off-guard -- 29 told the IG they “had no indication” they would be reassigned until receiving the official notification. The law requires 120 days between the appointment of a head of an agency and the reassignment of senior executives. According to the report, most senior executives received notices of reassignment 106 days after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s confirmation, but the first reassignment commenced 123 days after.

“In addition, we were told that in the majority of cases, neither the supervisor, acting bureau director, nor assistant secretary were aware of the reassignment until hours before the ERB sent the reassignment notifications,” IG stated.

In reply comments, Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt noted the guidelines for the Executive Resource Board's best practices were not implemented at the agency between Sept. 9, 2009, when they were developed and Jan. 20, 2017, when the Trump administration took office.

Bernhardt stated that delays in confirming political appointees "means that there are fewer principal officers to carefully evaluate existing practices and drive improvements within the Department."

Berhardt said that while he believed the SES reassignments under review are "lawful," he and  Zinke "concluded that the ERB could benefit from incorporating best practices and improving its business process." He said he directed the establishment of a charter, said the ERB was restructured in November, and added he met with leadership at Interior and the Office of Personnel Management for better managing SES reassignments.

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