BLM Testimony of Elaine Downing: “Employees are fearful of retaliation”


This is the public testimony of Elaine Downing, whose union represents over 600 employees of the US Bureau of Land Management in California. Mike Pool, the director of the BLM in California, has recently been named acting director of the national office of the BLM in Washington, DC. Although this is quite long, the testimony is very informative about the low morale at BLM and why it exists. Ms. Downing does not mention the suicide of Marlene Braun or the problem of bullying in the workplace per se, but the conditions she describes make it understandable how those things happened under Mr. Pool’s watch. What Downing does not mention are the managers at the level below field office supervisor, which is where Marlene Braun was, if I understand her rank correctly. She was management, but had to report to the field office supervisor, Ron Huntsinger. Such people are not represented by the union, but they can be subject to bullying. Being in management doesn’t prevent that.

Testimony of Elaine Downing, Vice President
National Federation of Federal Employees, Local 2152,
California Bureau of Land Management
Before the House Committee on Natural Resources
Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands
Regarding Restoring the Federal Public Lands Workforce
March 19, 2009

Thank you, Chairman Grijalva and distinguished Committee members, for the opportunity to
submit the following testimony.
My name is Elaine Downing. I serve as the Vice President of the National Federation of Federal
Employees (NFFE), Local 2152, representing approximately 600 Bureau of Land Management
employees throughout the state of California. Additionally, I keep in close contact with
numerous employees from other BLM offices, both represented by NFFE and other unions.
Overall, employee morale within BLM is relatively low, as evidenced in the recent government-
wide employee satisfaction survey. I believe the results of the employee satisfaction survey
actually misrepresent the true level of employee morale. In my estimation, morale is lower than
the survey indicates, because many employees are fearful of retaliation if they answer the survey
honestly. Many rank and file employees do not believe that the survey is actually anonymous,
regardless of the agency’s assurances, and many chose not to even respond to the survey.
It is difficult to point to one or two solitary reasons for low morale, as there are a multitude of
reasons for low morale within the Bureau. What I hope to do is to explain some of the more
often heard complaints that the union hears and witnesses in representing employees, or has
experienced firsthand. Our issues revolve around ethics, labor relations, workforce planning,
resource protection, performance appraisals and awards, and the balance between home- and
work-life. In my testimony, I have also included recommendations for improvements regarding
some of these concerns.

Workforce Planning
There is much concern among rank and file employees at BLM that upper level management
officials do not adequately manage how the work within the department is done. With critical
vacancies in the field for long periods of time, new software implementations that are impacting
all programs, unprecedented wildfire seasons in California, national emergencies like Hurricane
Katrina, and alternative energy development mandates, employees at BLM are constantly trying
to handle too many top priorities at once.

In my opinion, far too high of a percentage of agency resources are allocated toward supporting
higher level managers residing mostly in district and state offices, while the field offices, where
the majority of the agency’s mission is actually accomplished, get too small of a percentage.
Many field offices are severely understaffed and overworked. There is also concern that
management officials build hierarchies to protect their position and grade at the state and district
levels, while leaving protracted vacancies in critical positions at the field level. Having too
many managers and not enough rank and file employees to do the work has several undesirable
consequences; it is a waste of much-needed resources, it causes understaffing of critical
positions, it causes rank and file employees to be overworked, it has a tendency to make rank and
file employees feel micromanaged and pulled in different directions, and it ultimately hurts the
ability of the agency to carry out its mission.
Some people, particularly high level management officials, will point to budget shortfalls as a
primary cause of low employee morale. It is true that most employees are disheartened by
inadequate funding within their programs. However, we hear more complaints about the lack of
integrity in how and which vacancies are filled than complaints of a shortfall of appropriated
funds.
Here is an example of the kind of action that has frustrated BLM workers: Management will
allow for the advertising of a realty specialist position in an office where there is already one or
two, while in the same period, the agency will leave a critical realty specialist job in a field office
vacant for months, even though that field office does not have a single realty specialist on staff.
Failing to fill this critical vacancy tied the hands of the agency so that it could not carry out a key
function. That field office was unable to process alternative energy development applications for
a period of several months. In this critical time of alternative energy development, this should
not have been allowed to occur. We see lots of cases where BLM inappropriately fills non-
critical vacancies ahead of critical ones in this way. It hurts the mission and it frustrates workers.
Additionally, upper level management seems to lack an ability to manage workload. Rank and
file employees at all levels, but particularly in field offices, are bombarded by data requests and
work assignments from many sources including: Washington office, state office, district office,
other field offices, etc.

In my experience, management places very little if any emphasis on
BLM employees following a chain of command when requesting work to get done. There is also
little to no guidance for employees to make decisions on how to prioritize their work. In
addition, there is a considerable volume of work that comes through the door that BLM
employees are forced to perform, but the time it takes employees to handle these duties is often
overlooked by management. BLM employees often feel they are getting pulled in too many
directions at once, and they are unsure of how to prioritize their assignments. This common
problem has hurt morale at BLM.

Law Enforcement Officers
For law enforcement Rangers at the California BLM, morale is particularly low. These Rangers
are responsible for protecting resources and public safety across 15.2 million acres in California
and 1.6 million acres in northwestern Nevada. The Law Enforcement Ranger program started in
the California Desert District with the passage of the Federal Land Policy Management Act
(FLPMA) of 1976, which specifically mandated the focus toward protection of natural resources
within the California Desert Conservation Area. There is strong pride in California for that
reason.
Prior to 9/11, the ranger corps of BLM was dedicated to resource protection as prescribed under
FLPMA. After 9/11, and with the formation of Homeland Security, several high level BLM law
enforcement officials were hired into the Bureau from outside the agency.
Generally speaking, these new managers were less oriented toward natural resources and more
focused on homeland security. These new law enforcement managers also brought a stricter,
more militaristic style of management to the Ranger force. This shift in focus has caused a lot of
distress for many BLM law enforcement rangers and field office managers. Confusion as to who
these law enforcement officers answer to and who can delegate the work to them, is beginning to
cause friction within the offices, and it is affecting morale for all. Recent funding earmarked for
the California Desert Ranger program has not found its way to California, and there is a growing
concern that it was sent elsewhere.
A common concern we have heard from BLM law enforcement Rangers is that upper level
management does not value law enforcement officers with natural resource backgrounds. Many
law enforcement Rangers have speculated that they were passed up for promotion because
management was promoting from outside the agency for higher level positions. In addition, our
union has had to defend several Rangers against what I would consider to be questionable
disciplinary actions. These suspect disciplinary measures have had a strong tendency to be taken
against Rangers with natural resource orientations, hired before the creation of DHS. Regardless
of whether there is any validity to the concern some law enforcement Rangers have that they are
being treated unfairly, there can be little doubt that morale has fallen due to the perception that
they are not being given equal treatment.

Consolidation of Functions
There are two specific groups of employees at BLM that have recently been targeted for
consolidation, the Information Technology (IT) and Human Resources (HR) personnel. Even
though we as a union do not represent the HR staff (BLM considers them “confidential
employees,” and therefore outside the bargaining unit), they are our coworkers and are a critical
part of our mission. I will use this venue to share some of their major concerns.
In 2005, BLM’s Executive Leadership Team (ELT) started discussing a new initiative called
“Managing for Excellence.” This initiative was supposedly developed with the aim of improving
effectiveness and cost efficiency within BLM. Our union believes there were areas that needed
to be improved, but the agency has not demonstrated that the changes they have implemented,
nor the changes they are planning for in the future, have saved or will save any funds or improve
efficiency.
In fact, one of the primary decisions the team made—to put the three tier system (as opposed to
the two tier system) back in place—will most likely hurt efficiency within BLM. The three tier
system adds another layer of bureaucratic supervision to the field offices, which are actually
accomplishing the work right now, and could accomplish much more if they had adequate
staffing.
According to the ELT’s frequently asked questions document about the restructuring, the
rationale for moving to a three tier system read as follows “We’ve learned that being closer to
the ground with a three-tiered organization allows us to provide better service to the public and
better quality control. It also gives us the opportunity to reduce duplication and overhead
services.”
I respectfully disagree with this conclusion, and have seen no evidence to substantiate it. Adding
a third tier does not accomplish what they have claimed it does. Having worked in an office that
continued to have a district office (three tiers), while others went to two tiers, I have found that
the district does not bring consistency to the field offices. Rather, it adds a layer of management
that is costly and unnecessary. It also seems to justify additional grades to those employees who
often have the same knowledge, skills, abilities, and responsibilities as our field office staffers. I
do not believe that adding this layer of management eliminated any meaningful duplication of
effort or overhead. The three tier system has actually created more overhead and duplication of
effort.
Another one of the Managing for Excellence decisions was to transfer the functions of IT and
HR to a central location in Denver, Colorado. This decision alone is responsible for a drastic
decrease in employee morale. Not only has it impacted the IT and HR employees, but it has
affected all of the employees throughout the BLM.
Our most experienced IT and HR employees have begun looking for jobs elsewhere in their
same communities. Those who are mobile have started looking for jobs outside of BLM.
Promises of assistance regarding career counseling have yet to be fulfilled. Shortages in HR
have been very difficult to overcome, creating a backlog of work, especially during fire season.
In my estimation, it is taking several months longer on average to fill vacancies. Most
employees at or near retirement age feel as though they are being forced into retirement, while
others are taking voluntary downgrades, sometimes 3 or 4 grades below their current level, in
order to end the uncertainty of their future.
The initiative came with promises of union involvement, but we have only been engaged in an ad
hoc fashion. A Washington Office management official said it is the responsibility of the state
offices to negotiate with their local unions. However, local labor relations employees in the
state office cannot engage in meaningful discussions on topics when they do not know what is
going on themselves and they have not been included in the initiative planning. In fact, there has
not been as much as a conference call to collaborate and discuss the impacts of these changes on
BLM employees. A labor-management partnership council would be extremely helpful in
addressing employees concerns with regard to this reorganization.
Although, I have stated our union would like to bargain the impact and implementation of this
reorganization, I would like to make clear that we are adamantly opposed to this reorganization.
We are confident that this change will hurt BLM’s ability to perform HR and IT functions. This
initiative is very similar to the changes the U.S. Forest Service made a few years ago to
centralize IT and HR functions to Albuquerque, New Mexico. By many accounts, Forest
Service’s reorganization has been a disaster, yet BLM is intent on going down that same road. A
reorganization of the IT and HR functions at BLM will be damaging to the agency and promises
to be a tremendous waste of tax-payers’ dollars. BLM is going to lose immeasurable
institutional knowledge and talent as a result of this reorganization.
In addition to the problems I have already discussed, the process that has been developed using
USAjobs.gov has become a tremendous source of frustration for supervisors and HR specialists,
as well as applicants who want to work for the Bureau. Most non-federal applicants, as well as
current BLM employees, have found this system to be overly burdensome and give up after
being aggravated by the software system. In a recent job application for a realty specialist, there
were over 80 questions that had to be answered in addition to submitting a comprehensive
resume within the structure of this system. This is hurting the agency’s ability to recruit the
talent it needs to carry out its mission.

Employee Performance Appraisal Plans and Awards
In 2005, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) required BLM to switch back to a five
level performance appraisal system from a pass/fail system. The handbook is clear and concise,
describing a comprehensive system to develop critical elements, how to measure or quantify the
level of performance, and the proper procedures for rating employees. However, implementation
of this system has been very problematic.
Our union has reviewed a myriad of performance appraisals throughout the state of California.
When reviewing these appraisals we have discovered that typically everything that is listed in the
position description is listed in either one or two critical elements, while the quantifiable
measurements are ambiguous and subjective. Favored employees of course, get glowing reviews
and non-favored employees are saddled with having to defend themselves against vague,
subjective, and indefensible measurements. BLM needs to do a better job of creating appraisals
that accurately describe the critical elements and performance standards of employees’ duties.
Until these performance appraisals are done properly, BLM employees will continue to
experience great frustration in the performance appraisal process and eventually become
disengaged.
The system would work well if the agency would implement a structure for annual oversight and
make a commitment to adequately train all BLM employees. I believe this change would lead to
tremendous improvements in morale, performance and accountability. All too often, we find
government agencies are blaming the inadequacies of a system on the structure of the system,
when the real problem is the lack of training, oversight, and accountability.
There is no oversight on appraisals within each state or within the agency. There is no
consistency from employee to employee, office to office, or state to state, in both how they are
written and how employees are rated. I recently had the opportunity to discuss this issue with a
realty specialist from New Mexico BLM. This realty specialist had only one critical element on
which to be rated, and that was “safety.” It stands to reason that a GS-11 realty specialist would
5
Page 6
have at least one critical element having to do with something other than safety. This example
shows that BLM is not following OPM guidance in determining critical elements.
Likewise, the awards system at BLM is highly flawed. There is little attempt by BLM to
conduct oversight to ensure consistency. Management officials in the state offices do not review
performance appraisals and ratings for quality or consistency and awards may or may not be tied
to them. Some offices give token awards to everyone. The only person that we know of that
reviews the appraisals and awards in the state of California office is a human resource specialist
whose only objective is to make sure the documents were received. There needs to be more
fairness and accountability in the distribution of awards and it should have a nexus to
performance.
Alternative Pay Systems
We have been closely monitoring so-called pay-for-performance systems that have been
developed and implemented at other agencies. We think it would be a very bad idea for the
Department of Interior to attempt a move to a subjective pay system like ones that have been
developed at the Department of Defense and elsewhere. These alternative pay systems have had
a poor record of success in the federal sector, and in my opinion, the BLM lacks many of the
prerequisites for a fair, transparent, and effective merit pay system. The only way a pay-for-
performance system would work in the federal sector is if there was a fair, objective, and
consistent appraisal system; real accountability demanded from managers; a true 360-degree
performance review of each and every employee, including top management officials; and a
significant increase in funding to support the pay system. All of these requirements are a tall
order to achieve in BLM. Increased funding is particularly difficult with constant pressure to
contain the expense of government services.
New Technology
The effects of the newly implemented software for government travel (GovTrip) and the new
Financial Business Management System (FBMS) system, has been problematic. BLM is unable
to pull reports, pay vendors, reconcile accounts, transfer funds, or process travel authorizations
and vouchers in a timely manner. Travel vouchers that once took approximately one hour, now
take several hours or even days, depending on the availability of the software system. The
software is not user friendly and we have heard many complaints from users at all levels,
including management officials. This is affecting all BLM employees across the agency.
Practically everyone at BLM has been negatively affected by the transition to these software
programs. The acronyms used in the new FBMS are not user friendly and very little guidance
and training has been provided. Employees have been forced to learn the software by soliciting
help from someone else who has had training. It is inconvenient for an office to rely on just one
person for this kind of expertise, which is often the case. Any one person could be out of the
office for an extended period of time. BLM employees are in need of more training on the new
software. This is not just a matter of employees not liking change. It has been extremely
aggravating to all employees because they are unable to perform their duties.

Labor Relations
Under the previous administration, California BLM management became almost completely
unresponsive to union concerns. Under President Bush, a lot of the Clinton era Federal Labor
Relations Authority (FLRA) guidance used to facilitate labor-management relations was
disregarded, and it caused a lot of confusion about how to resolve labor-management disputes
and how to handle unfair labor practices (ULPs). Not only was this action antagonistic toward
labor unions, I believe the confusion caused by this move cost taxpayers millions of dollars in
lost time and efficiency, as labor and management struggled to establish new terms for their
relationship. This is particularly true within BLM where labor-management relations became
extremely difficult and burdensome.
Management officials do not come to the table to negotiate collective bargaining agreements in
California BLM. They delegate the task to labor relations specialists. They do this because the
State Director and the Associate State Director do not seem to care about employees’ concerns
relating to working conditions and morale. Our current contract calls for quarterly meetings
between the union and our State Director or his Associate to discuss problems. During the last
eight years we have yet to meet with the State Director or his Associate.
Our union is hopeful that Congress and the new Administration will re-establish basic labor-
management relations at BLM. We believe that a labor-management partnership council, like
the one in place at the Forest Service, would be an effective way of bringing employee concerns
to the attention of management and addressing them.
Some agencies have elected to retain their labor-management partnerships when both labor and
management found it to be an effective avenue to address issues impacting labor relations. In
contrast, BLM was very quick to terminate their state and national partnership councils when the
opportunity arose. Employees within BLM have seen the lack of follow up on numerous issues
that have been brought to the attention of management. There is serious disconnect between
management and the employees of BLM that we would like to see resolved by reestablishing
partnership councils.

Disparate Treatment between Managers and Rank and File Employees
Our union has witnessed disparate treatment between managers and rank and file in many
different areas. This disparity exists in the awards program, performance appraisals, training,
accountability, discipline, and in the addressing of unethical behavior.
For example, a management official who was caught with inappropriate material on a BLM-
issued computer was disciplined with a suspension, while rank and file employees would be, and
have been, fired for virtually identical offenses. This unfairness has caused a lot of frustration
among BLM employees.
Management officials and management-favored employees have often been allowed to violate
agency policy regarding such things as: internet use and security; use of government vehicles;
use of government equipment for personal use; improper reimbursement during official travel for
personal business; agency policy on pets; and fiscal accountability. Morale would be better at
BLM if the same rules were applied to and enforced on everyone.
Management team meetings during lean times of budget are often held at resort locations, which
are not well received by employees who have been told there is not enough money for their
project, training, awards, office, field supplies, or to implement safety committees as per our
collective bargaining agreement and the law. Disparate treatment between management and rank
and file workers, at many different levels, is hurting morale at BLM.

Whistleblower Protection

Our union believes that current whistle blower protections, as they have been enforced by the
Office of Special Counsel, are inadequate to protect federal workers. Whether it is through
stricter enforcement of existing whistleblower protections, or through legislation, we strongly
support strengthening these key protections, which are such a critical element of government
accountability. BLM employees are in desperate need of a Special Counsel that will protect
employees who open themselves up to reprisal when coming forward with information on waste,
frauds, and abuse. Until a better system is put in place to ensure accountability and protection
from retaliation and adverse actions against whistleblowers, BLM workers will be reluctant to
come forward. Inadequate whistleblower protection at BLM has hurt morale within the
department.

Going Forward With Optimism

Going forward, I and many other employees at BLM have a strong sense of optimism that our
work environment will begin to see marked improvement. We strongly support the efforts of
President Obama and Secretary Salazar to bring integrity and accountability back into the
Department of Interior workforce. The agency will be well served by reevaluating the ethics
regulations and removing politics and ideology from Bureau decision making. There are
hundreds of talented and dedicated employees working throughout BLM who love their job and
love their country. To most of us, working for the American people at an agency that allows us
manage our country’s natural resources, is very rewarding. I consider it a dream come true. We
are surrounded by beautiful scenery and are charged with its protection. It is an honor of mine to
come to work each day.

Conclusion

In closing, I would like to thank you again for this opportunity to provide testimony. Employees
at BLM have had a lot to say about morale but have lacked the venue to say it. It is a great relief
to finally voice some of these concerns before such a distinguished panel. We commend this
Subcommittee for asking BLM employees for their concerns and evaluation of employee morale
at the department. I will be happy to respond to any questions you may have. I can be reached at
Elaine_Downing@ca.blm.gov.

Advertisements

One Response

  1. The BLM don’t link to this testimony – I wonder why, mmm ….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: