SES Shudders at Clueless Reorganizations and Parade of Temporary Leaders
Washington, DC — Career senior managers inside the U.S. Department of Interior have seen far better days, according to a new survey by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These managers feel the brunt of confused reorganizations, increased centralization of decision-making, and a continuing carousel of short-term “acting” directors, many without much grounding in their temporary high-level portfolios.
The Senior Executive Service contains the top level of civil service managers. In 2017, then-acting Interior David Bernhardt reassigned 27 of its 227 SES positions without a written plan or demonstrated rationale. Several resigned while the remainder suffered through –
- A massive yet amorphous Interior-wide reorganization of 49 offices across 8 bureaus into 12 “Unified Regions” headed by officials hand-picked by Bernhardt;
- Banishing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) headquarters from Washington DC and spreading much of the staff into Western state offices; and
- The absence of permanent directors for Interior agencies, such as the National Park Service and BLM, with many short-term acting directors lasting only months.
Respondents to the PEER survey of current SES members gave distressingly low marks on the direction of the agency, competence of political appointees, and lack of consultation, although the rate of return was less than 10%. Nonetheless, SES members offered trenchant observations about conditions in essays on what the biggest challenge facing Interior:
“Inexperience, lack of competence, and extreme political influence by the current group of appointees—whether confirmed or acting.”
“Loss of institutional knowledge and experienced staff. They—the DOI leadership—are silencing the voices of those that are knowledgeable/experienced who know their subject matter – what’s good, right or wrong, & will speak up. So they are transferring them out or making it so unbearable to work there they quit.”
“Credibility w/reorganizing as there is no ‘plan.’”
“Morale of career SES & career staff is abysmally low.”
“These survey results are a feeble cry for help from within a smoldering bureaucratic purgatory,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, noting that the Interior Department apparently has no plans to gauge the morale or perspectives of its career managers. “Besides the ongoing and short-term damage, there is a growing concern that the career leadership echelons inside these agencies will be largely hollowed out heading into the next decade.”