With growing number of retirement-age employees, Zinke sees chance to replace, relocate jobs west

The Interior Department may quickly become the poster child for a government reorganization and relocation — moving hundreds of federal jobs out of the Washington, D.C. area and to other parts of the country.

The Interior Department wants to make this concept a reality. In fact, it’s a major component to the agency’s $11.8 billion 2019 budget proposal and reorganization plan.

And with 16 percent of Interior’s workforce at retirement-age today and 40 percent eligible in the next five years, the department sees an opportunity to fill those positions with young talent at lower-grade levels outside of the Washington metropolitan area.

“Looking at a replacement as people retire [and] looking at pushing more assets out west, it makes a difference if you’re a GS-5 [or] a GS-7 where you live,” Secretary Ryan Zinke told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at Interior’s budget hearing Tuesday. “San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., are very expensive cities, and quite frankly, the quality of life if you’re a GS-7 [or] entry-level is difficult [for] a number of reasons. We are looking at smaller communities out west.”

The concept of relocation is becoming a hot topic for some members of Congress in recent months. The Strategic Withdrawal of Agencies for Meaningful Placement (SWAMP) Act, which Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.) introduced, would authorize agencies to move their headquarters out of the Washington, D.C. area.

Zinke described a similar process for certain parts of his department.

“We are looking at smaller communities, particularly in areas like BLM and in these different regions where Interior folks [at an] entry-level can enjoy a quality of life, have a chance to buy a house, have a chance to have good schools [and] good hospitals,” he said. “We haven’t determined where. We think we’ll probably have three candidates within the different regions for that and then work with Congress to get a metric applied to it, so we do it by best practices and science.”

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Zinke on Tuesday didn’t dive too deeply in the department’s specific reorganization plans, but the House Natural Resources Committee is expected to question him further later this week.

Under Interior’s plan, the department would be organized and managed based on 13 broad regions across the country. “Regional leaders” would head up each of the 13 areas and coordinate collaboration among the department’s bureaus to make joint management decisions.

The department is asking for nearly $18 million in fiscal 2019 to facilitate its reorganization, $5 million of which would go toward moving portions of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters and another $5 million for relocating parts of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Some members of Congress, including Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), have an appetite for BLM relocation. Gardner introduced the Bureau of Land Management Headquarters Relocation Act last May, which directs Interior to submit a strategy for moving the subcomponent to a western state.

Moving BLM headquarters elsewhere makes sense, because the agency administers 245 million acres of federally owned land, Gardner said. All but 100,000 acres are located in the 11 western-most states and Alaska.

“The people who work there are among the lands they manage,” he said. “I already have a number of field personnel out in the states where the 245 million acres reside, but we can get the headquarters employees there as well. Decisions are better made when they’re made by those … within those communities that are most affected by those decisions.”

The department would also use $2.5 million to consolidate staff from multiple bureaus into one building in Anchorage, Alaska, and an additional $3 million to relocate parts of the Bureau of Reclamation to Denver, Colorado.

Interior requested $2 million to relocate “a small number of employees to unified regional offices,” according to the House committee’s memo previewing Thursday’s budget hearing.

“As a retired Navy SEAL commander, I believe in giving more authority to the front lines where it should reside so decisions can be made at the local level, rather than in Washington, D.C.,” Zinke said. “Clearly, the one-size-fits-all model has been ineffective.”

Interior in June reassigned 33 senior executives to other positions across the department, and 10 of those executives were asked to relocate geographically. Six accepted and made the move, according to documents Interior posted last December on an online library of Freedom of Information Act requests.

As Federal News Radio previously reported, Interior executives said the reassignments left them feeling demoralized, and they criticized the department’s leadership for failing to include them — at least at the time — in plans to reorganize DOI.

Zinke, however, said members of the Interior Senior Executive Service have been involved in the planning.

“In planning this organization, I’ve taken into account feedback from Congress, governors, Interior employees and the stakeholders,” he said at Tuesday’s budget hearing. “It’s an organization based on science, watersheds [and] wildlife corridors. We brought in our SES professionals to look at it, adjust the boundaries to make sure they’re practical, and I’ve met with the governors.”

Senators also praised Zinke for his efforts to improve Interior’s culture and employee engagement. The department improved on all 10 workplace categories on the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings in 2017.

“We know that the department has not always fared well on these types of surveys, but last year showed some bonafide improvements,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee’s chairwoman, said. “I appreciate your continued work to improve its culture and performance. We’re seeing that prove out.”