In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to relocate two of its departments–a combined total of more than 500 jobs–from the D.C. area to Kansas City. The move has sparked legal questions about whether the U.S.D.A. can cover the cost of the relocation without budgetary approval from Congress.

It’s also provoking significant controversy. Some proponents argue that the agencies are better placed closer to the agricultural heart of the country. White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told the crowd at a Republican fundraiser that the shift is part of the administration’s strategy to ‘drain the swamp.’ Opponents say that uprooting the offices will seriously disrupt day-to-day research operations and result in widespread brain drain, as about two-thirds of employees affected have declined their reassignments.

Beyond the U.S.D.A., the Trump Administration has its eye on other major federal agency relocations and reorganizations. In July, the Department of the Interior said that it plans to reassign 300 of its D.C.-based Bureau of Land Management employees to a variety of western states. The new Social Security Administration Commissioner announced a hiring freeze last week, and the Trump Administration is pressing to fold the Office of Personnel Management in with the General Services Administration.

What does all this upheaval mean for the D.C. region — and the federal workers who call it home? We’ll discuss.

Produced by Margaret Barthel

Guests

  • Max Stier President and CEO, Partnership for Public Service; @RPublicService

Transcript

  • 12:00:02

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast a new pilot program is bringing mopeds to the streets of D.C., like e-scooters they'll be available at the swipe of a bottom on an app. What could this mean for mobility and safety in the region? But first, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is transplanting two of its larger agencies all told about 500 jobs from the D.C. area to Kansas City on September 30th, but the majority of people in those jobs aren't going. Almost two thirds of the current employees affected have said they won't move themselves and their families west, and so they'll lose their jobs in September.

  • 12:00:40

    KOJO NNAMDIThe U.S.D.A. move is controversial one, and so are other federal government shifts on the horizon including: a relocation for the Bureau of Land Management, as well as a merger of the office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration, not to mention a hiring freeze at the Social Security Administration. Joining me in studio to discuss this is Max Stier. He's the President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, non-profit non-partisan organization that aims to promote effective government. Max Stier, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:11

    MAX STIERThank you so much for having me.

  • 12:01:13

    NNAMDIMax, I just listed a number of the proposed or planned changes we've been seeing the federal government in the Trump administration coming out with lately. Before we get into the individual details, what do you make of the whole situation?

  • 12:01:25

    STIERWell, the whole situation bluntly is troubling. We have an administration that actually started out very strong in taking a look at what kind of reorganization opportunities might be available to make the government work better, and they did that very early on, actually unusually early on. And unfortunately there hasn't been, bluntly, a lot of movement since they announced the effort to relook at certain ways that the government functions. And a number of the individual instances that you sited ultimately aren't being done in the most effective way. And they're being done in a way that isn't focused on mission, which ought to be the central point.

  • 12:02:05

    NNAMDIThe most immediate relocation is of two offices at U.S.D.A., the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to Kansas City. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue says that the move will save money and move these positions closer to the center of the industry that they're actually regulating, but others including you have expressed concerns about the decision. Why has it been so controversial?

  • 12:02:30

    STIERWell, again, the starting point here is there's nothing wrong with examining how our government works. We ought to be doing that. And there's nothing wrong with examining whether organization should be here in D.C. or elsewhere. The most problematic part of the conversation around U.S.D.A. is the way it's being done. And the most blatant example of why it's not working is the statistic you cited, which is, you know, two thirds of the employees themselves say they are not going. And it may be worse than that, because those that say they might be going might choose not to.

  • 12:03:02

    STIERAnd you have to ask yourself, can you yourself imagine being told that you have 33 days to decide whether you're going to uproot and move yourself across the country. It's not the right way to be doing this. It's not the right way to be doing it with respect to the employees, which are the most important asset we have. Our government is not buildings. It's people.

  • 12:03:22

    NNAMDIWhat would be the right way to be doing it? What would a better process for a complicated relocation like this look like?

  • 12:03:28

    STIERWell, so it starts with, again, mission. And it starts with a really compelling description about the why. Why is this important? Why will the American public be served more effectively by doing this? And a conversation that ought to have taken place with Congress, which is a vital partner here and with the employees themselves. And then if a decision was made to move forward it ought to have been a process that was respectful of the employees in a way that this has not been. And that includes giving enough time to enable it to be done well.

  • 12:04:00

    STIERYou could imagine, for example, having done that front end work, a five year process where you said, Hey, we've shown you why this makes a lot of sense. We've talked it with Congress. We've talked about the employees and we're going to do a graduated careful move from where we are right now to some other location. And we will use attrition and other ways of ramping down here in D.C. and ramping up some place else. That would be the better way to do it.

  • 12:04:27

    STIERInterestingly, after the contract for American 1995-96, legislation was passed to get rid of the Department of Commerce. And in that legislation itself there was specific language and effort to make sure that no federal employee would actually be hurt by getting rid of the agency. That's not the same kind of process we're seeing here right now.

  • 12:04:53

    NNAMDIWell, it appears that there is some amendment to what was originally planned, because the U.S.D.A and the AFGE, the American Federation of Government Employees, announced this past Friday that they've reached an agreement under which U.S.D.A. will provide all employees, who accept their relocation orders with a financial incentive equal to one month's salary. In addition, the department will employees with 60 days of temporary housing in the Kansas City area. They may apply for an extension of that benefit giving workers up to 120 days to find a permanent home after they relocate, too little too late?

  • 12:05:29

    STIERYou took the words right out of my mouth. I mean, I think here you already have a situation where two thirds of the employees say they're not going to go, and, again, you don't know for sure if the rest will. You've already got a situation where Congress hasn't been integrated in this process appropriately. And it is immensely disruptive here. Come back to mission. This doesn't help the farmer. This doesn't help our country. It's worth also noting that as it is right now 85 percent of the total workforce is outside of D.C. More than 87 percent of the Department of Agriculture as you mentioned the Bureau of Land Management 95 plus percent of the BLM is actually outside of D.C. So I think part of what you have here is a mis-appreciation of the fact that the workforce is already an American workforce. It's not a D.C. workforce.

  • 12:06:23

    STIERBut you absolutely have a process that hasn't been run in a way that is going to take care of the most vital asset we have, which are the people, who serve our country and serve the American public.

  • 12:06:34

    NNAMDIWell, if 85 percent of the workforce is outside of D.C. does that include people, who are in the workforce who are in Virginia where the Pentagon is and that's a huge bureaucracy in the suburbs of Virginia?

  • 12:06:46

    STIERYes. It does. So I'm talking about -- and I shouldn't use short form. But the DMV -- so what we're talking about is 123,000 federal employees in the State of California, the federal workforce. The government shutdown was a great illustrator of this. You saw stories across the country of work that was being done in community by federal employees. People mistake the notion of Washington D.C. for their federal government. It isn't. Most of it is outside of D.C. already. Now a lot of the leadership is here in D.C. and there is actually good reason for that. It's important that different entities, the leadership in government coordinate their work together. Being co-located in a single place helps make that possible. It's important for them to be closer to Congress.

  • 12:07:33

    NNAMDITo the policymakers.

  • 12:07:34

    STIERTo the policymakers, absolutely. So there is a rational to have a federal city. It needs to be very much connected to the public and to the customer and there's definite work that could be done to improve that. And there are good reasons to move parts of government to other places. So an example of that would have been the Patent Trademark Office was opened an office in Silicon Valley, and under the last administration made a ton of sense. A lot of the, you know, innovation the patent applications, they were all happening there, made sense to put an office there.

  • 12:08:08

    STIEROftentimes agencies -- and not enough, but sometimes will find parts of their organization that will do something particularly well. Imagine their Cincinnati office managing the HR processing really well. So they'll move that stuff to a place where it does it better, but, again, it comes back to the why. Having a powerful why can generate the right motivation for making those kind of moves.

  • 12:08:31

    NNAMDIAnd the how in this case. You mentioned the lack of consultation with Congress. Some local members of Congress have expressed their opposition to the U.S.D.A. plan. And there's some indication that the administration may have made a mistake in not involving Capitol Hill in this decision. The Inspector General just came out with a report that says that the U.S.D.A. essentially broke the law by putting the relocation in motion without asking for the budget to make the move happen. What does that mean? Do you expect to see some kind of legal action and could it happen in time to slow this down?

  • 12:09:04

    STIERSo this is a very concrete example of what we were talking about earlier. That the administration as you say has not adequately consulted with Congress. There was language that was put into the appropriations for the Department of Agriculture that required the agency to get permission before using any money to use for a relocation. And the administration's response is that that's unconstitutional. That they are not actually required to get that permission, because it would be a violation of the Constitution to have the single House of Congress be able to stop them from doing it. Truth is that what this demonstrates is that they have moved forward without bringing Congress along.

  • 12:09:46

    STIERAnd whether they win or lose on a legal battle over this, they've alienated Congress and that's not a good idea. This needs to be done jointly or bluntly not at all. And so I can't -- as my wife says, I'm a fallen lawyer. I can't put odds on whether they win or lose. You're right it could be a Feta Compli. It could be done is a way that is hard to unravel, but that's not, again, the appropriate way to manage the government. Any political appointee or career official swears an oath to the Constitution. You got to do this the right way.

  • 12:10:18

    NNAMDIHere's Mary in Washington D.C. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:10:22

    MARYThank you, Kojo. I used to work at Economic Research Service, which is a statistical agency of the American government. It's run by a OMB directives that talk very strictly about what it's allowed to do and it's supposed to be keeping political interference away from it. Under the Obama administration we worked so hard to play by the rules. These guys aren't playing by the rules. And mostly the point is ERS was putting out economic reports that administration didn't like. And they're trying to silence people, who can do economic analysis whose job it is to get the questions that the agriculture community needs asked and answered from members of Congress, from other agencies in D.C.

  • 12:11:03

    MARYThe job is very D.C. centric. These are PhDs mostly who work there. You know, not that Kansas City doesn't have plenty of PhDs, but they are trying to throw sand in the gears of government so that the American people and farmers most importantly, who need congressionally mandated, you know, crop reports and projections don't have the tools they need to feed us. This is a very dangerous thing they're doing.

  • 12:11:25

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Mary. On the other hand, Max Stier, proponents of the move argue that it's a good idea to relocate parts of the Department of Agriculture closer to where most of the agriculture in this country is actually happening. Isn't that a valid argument?

  • 12:11:42

    STIERSo, look, I do think that it's a valid argument to say that government service should be connected to the people that are actually being served. And it comes back to the point that we talked about earlier that 85 percent of the workforce -- more than that at U.S.D.A. is already dispersed across the United States. I think at one point it's probably still true. U.S.D.A. had an employee in every single county. And if I can take one commercial on U.S.D.A. moment here, it's an amazing organization. It was founded by Lincoln. The agriculture in this country is the most efficient, amazingly productive agriculture across the world. And the U.S.D.A. has a significant role in having made that so.

  • 12:12:22

    STIERAnd you heard from the prior caller that the work of the Economic Research Service is really fundamental into making that continue along and work. And their work is specialized. It's not about being next to the crop lands. It's about economic information that they are able to analyze in ways that help the farmers and policymakers make better choices. So I think that it's not clear to me that for this particular service it does make sense for it to be moved outside of D.C. I do also believe that there really hasn't been the work done to show that compelling case or that this is a better place for it.

  • 12:13:03

    STIERWhat we do know is the people needed to do this job won't be there, and won't be there for a long time to come or as productive for a long time to come, because they're not going to make the move. So you don't gain a whole lot of you lose your entire workforce. I can't imagine any business person doing that in a way that would lose the people that are essential to getting the job done.

  • 12:13:26

    NNAMDIMr. Gloria tweets, Trump and his Chief of Staff identified government employees as the swamp. When employees are the enemy injuring their welfare is the why. Trump supporters are cheering, seems like Steve Bannon's dismantling of federal government is in progress. And then there's this, Alan in Washington D.C. Alan, your turn.

  • 12:13:52

    ALANYeah, this is -- I hate to be putting myself in the shoes of some of these conspiracy people, but this just occurred to me. I live in Washington D.C. The government workforce in the D.C. in the suburbs is overwhelmingly democratic. And it seems that they're being moved into red states. Is this an attempt to dilute the voting base? I'm off the air.

  • 12:14:16

    NNAMDII don't know if Max Stier is an expert on that.

  • 12:14:19

    STIERWell, look I think what's interesting, there is a whole other dynamic here, which is for members of Congress it's all to their benefit to bring federal resources to their districts. So actually there's a lot of change that could happen to make the government more efficient that Congress stops, because, you know, members don't want to see jobs disappear from their district. And there certainly was a lot of competition amongst a lot of places to figure out -- to encourage these parts of the U.S.D.A. to come to those districts. So the jobs matter, whether it's political or economic development, I couldn't say. But there is that pull. And it's another reason why having a federal city is so important, because it actually belongs to the whole American people.

  • 12:15:00

    NNAMDII will now follow up on what Alan just said because some members of the Trump administration have been pretty vocal about their interest in cutting the size of the federal government, so called draining the swamp. In fact, White House Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney pointed to the U.S.D.A. moving jobs to Kansas City as a good way to get rid of federal workers. He said that at a recent republican fundraiser. I'd like to read some of what he said. Quoting here, "It's nearly impossible to fire a federal worker. I know that because a lot of them work for me and I've tried. By simply saying to people, You know what? We're going to take you outside the bubble, outside the beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington D.C. and move you out in the real part of the country. And they quit. What a wonderful way to sort of streamline government."

  • 12:15:44

    STIERSo, look, I would say that the most important role that any leader, again, career or political has is taking care of the people in government, because that's a common asset to how the government runs. And that ought to be foremost and front and center for everybody who is in a leadership position. And that's their responsibility. I think it's impossible for us to know whether everyone involved here has the same set of motives or what exactly it is. I'm focused on what the outcome is going to be for the American people. And it's not a good one to lose your workforce that's doing something so important. When Abraham Lincoln started the Department of Agriculture 90 percent of the American population was focused on farming.

  • 12:16:24

    STIERThat's two percent right now. That's a very important two percent that's being well served by these organizations at U.S.D.A. And if they want to continue to have that kind of service they need to keep the people.

  • 12:16:36

    NNAMDIJohn emails, It's my understanding that a majority of the people being forced to move are scientists that are producing research regarding climate change that the current administration doesn't agree with. Know anything about that?

  • 12:16:46

    STIERWell, I think it's an element of their work. It's not the entire opus of their work and, again, I can't pull out motive here, but there's a lot more that's going to get lost than just the climate research. So this is fundamental research that policymakers that farmers and that others need, and it won't happen it won't come back in any real time if you chase away two thirds of the workforce.

  • 12:17:13

    NNAMDIHave you seen departures from a single agency on this scale before?

  • 12:17:17

    STIERNo. Again, this is incredibly -- to me, you know, the shutdown was burning your own house down. This is a localized version of that. It just is not the way to treat your organization. If you made an affirmative judgement that these organizations were no longer necessary that they weren't the right place to be investing in resources. I don't hear anybody saying that. And if you accept that they're important organizations then you have to accept that taking care of the people is the only way you're going to get the productive outcome that you want.

  • 12:17:51

    NNAMDIAs we said earlier the relocation of these two U.S.D.A. offices is not the only change that could be on the horizon for the federal government. Last month the Department of the Interior proposed a plan that would move D.C. area positions at the Bureau of Land Management out to a number of western states. And the White House has also indicated an interest in disbanding the Office of Personnel Management and making it part of the General Services Administration. Where do those plans now stand?

  • 12:18:15

    STIERSo, again, I mean on BLM it's a similar situation to the U.S.D.A. where you have a proposal that would remove in this instance, you know, almost the entire leadership of BLM, slightly smaller cohort outside of D.C. And there in BLM, 95 percent of that workforce is already actually outside of Washington D.C. You do have -- the conversation has been around moving the primary headquarters to Colorado. You have both democrat and republican Senators there who are supportive of it. Reinforcing my point, which is that the local draw of having more jobs is highly attractive whatever your party is, but you have the same situation where you've had insufficient and inadequate process, insufficient and inadequate real description of the why. This is actually the better way to get better service for the public.

  • 12:19:08

    STIEROPM is a little bit of different kettle of fish. It's really about moving the functions of OPM to different places including GSA. The point here, though, is you do see a common denominator. You see in my view an insufficient demonstration of the purpose of why these changes are necessary, insufficient engagement of Congress and ultimately of the workforce.

  • 12:19:31

    NNAMDIEven if the federal government positions are already all over the country as you pointed out, D.C. is still very much a federal government town. What could the impacts of these relocations and restructurings be here at home?

  • 12:19:43

    STIERSo I think in the examples you've described they're still relatively small in terms of number of people. I mean, for any individual involved it's still traumatic. But you're still talking about hundreds not thousands of jobs. This is a conversation that takes place fairly frequently. You know, Andrew Yang, a candidate for the democratic presidency has presented a proposal to move organizations outside of D.C. This is not something that is unique to a Republican Party. There's an intuitive appeal, but I also think there's insufficient understanding about what already exists in terms of the dispersal of the federal employees and the value of having a federal city. So the answer I would say is not huge in these specific instances. But to the extent the public doesn't really understand that they're government isn't D.C. already that's a problem.

  • 12:20:36

    NNAMDIIndeed I remember in 1993 Vice President Al Gore being put in charge of something called the National Partnership for Reinventing Government.

  • 12:20:42

    STIERYes.

  • 12:20:43

    NNAMDIWhose purpose was to streamline the government. So this is definitely not new.

  • 12:20:46

    STIERYep.

  • 12:20:47

    NNAMDIHowever, that's all the time we have. Max Stier is President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit non-partisan organization that aims to promote effective government. Max Stier, good to see you. Thanks for joining us.

  • 12:20:58

    STIERThank you for your tremendous work here in Washington.

  • 12:21:00

    NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back a new pilot program is bringing mopeds to the streets of D.C. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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