Leaders invite suggestions and get an earful

By Michael Doyle | 09/25/2017 01:12 PM EDT

The Interior Department’s career employees are schooling their new political leaders on everything from purchase cards to uniforms, under a confidential suggestion system that’s yielded some surprising results.

U.S. Department of Interior Building in Washington.

U.S. Department of Interior Building in Washington. Pamela King/E&E News

The Interior Department’s career employees are schooling their new political leaders on everything from purchase cards to uniforms, under a confidential suggestion system that’s yielded some surprising results.

Set up about a month ago, the department’s electronic "ideas box" has attracted about 250 responses so far, spokeswoman Heather Swift said today.

"Some of the ideas have already served to trigger action," Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt advised employees in a departmentwide message Friday, adding that "many of your comments have educated me on particular issues that I might not have fully appreciated without them."


Uniforms, for instance.

Some Interior employees, as well as outside groups, have voiced dissatisfaction with current uniform designs. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a retired Navy commander, can apparently relate, and the department’s "ideas box" has helped focus attention on the topic.

"I was a couple steps behind the secretary in recognizing that it is time for the uniforms to be updated," Bernhardt acknowledged, adding that "your comments have reinforced the very real need of doing so."

While the specific nature of the potential uniform updates remains unclear, past suggestions cited by the National Parks Traveler journal have ranged from softening the law-enforcement look to more partnerships with commercial sportswear manufacturers.

Interior is evaluating potential vendors for work on uniforms for nine different public lands management agencies.

"An effective uniform program is vital," agency officials stated in the request for proposals, noting the duty station climate conditions can range from freezing cold to sizzling heat.

The electronic "ideas box" represents one partial solution to a perennial challenge facing the political appointees who come in every several years to manage a federal agency dominated by career staff. While those leaders may know where they want to steer the ship, career staff know how to keep the engines running and the vessel watertight.

Some incoming leaders adopt a go-it-alone, palace guard approach. The Trump administration’s State Department, for instance, has spurred numerous critical accounts of foreign policy professionals being alienated from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s small inner circle (Climatewire, Aug. 23).

‘Great success’

At Interior, Zinke and Bernhardt are two of only three Senate-confirmed leaders currently in place overseeing some 70,000 full- and part-time employees.

Zinke only knew the department indirectly, as a member of Congress serving on the House Natural Resources Committee, prior to his appointment as Interior secretary. Earlier this year, he made a point of reaching out by inviting employees to bring their dogs to work.

Bernhardt, whose job entails overseeing day-to-day operations, previously worked at the department as a George W. Bush administration political appointee. The "ideas box" was established shortly after he took office on Aug. 1 (E&E Daily, July 25).

"The idea box has been a great success," Swift said.

In his 11-paragraph, departmentwide message Friday, Bernhardt also cited suggestions to raise spending limits on the purchase cards assigned to Interior staffers. This will require revisiting a potentially touchy subject.

A study last year by Interior’s Office of Inspector General found there were 26,518 purchase card accounts across the department, used to make almost 1.2 million transactions that totaled approximately $394 million.

Holders use the cards to pay for small purchases, with the 2014 limits set at $2,000 for construction, $2,500 for services and $3,000 for supplies.

"We found areas of concern associated with internal controls and documentation, leaving the bureaus vulnerable to financial mismanagement and an increased potential for fraud, waste, and abuse," the OIG study noted.

Unlike potential uniform changes, Bernhardt cautioned, some "help from Congress" might be required to increase the card limits.

Pointedly, Bernhardt added that "leadership is listening" to employees’ concerns about management accountability and handling of misconduct allegations, calling out by name two former department staffers who were fired over alleged misbehavior.

"I also want to convey that we can only take action when we are aware of misconduct," Bernhardt wrote. "Such awareness often ultimately depends on an employee’s willingness to come forward."