EPA Eyes Shake-Up of Key Personnel: Badly in Need of Flesh Ideas, the EPA Is on the Verge of Undergoing a Major Personnel Reform That Will Reassign Firmly Entrenched Senior Executives within the Agency. (Special Report)

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Nothing officially has been announced and final plans are not yet in place, so officials are reluctant to speak publicly. But winks and nods are being given at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about an "SES shuffle" of a kind that hasn't been attempted since the administration of George W. Bush's father.

INSIGHT has learned that EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman may be the first agency head of the Bush administration to attempt a major personnel reorganization. The plan would relocate 67 percent of the 280 officials in EPA's Senior Executive Service (SES) corps, reassigning them from their current posts to other jobs within the agency. Current and former EPA officials express cautious optimism about what they regard as a gutsy and politically charged shake-up that is much needed.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) says roughly 6,800 senior executives serve throughout 75 federal agencies and departments under SES. "The SES was designed to be a corps of executives selected for their leadership qualifications, not their technical expertise," says an OPM description statement. They are a kind of permanent government -- a link between politically appointed administrators and executives and the rest of the federal workforce.

Interviews already are under way as Whitman's people discuss career goals with the 190 officials on the "SES mobility list" whom the EPA leader has scheduled for redeployment. Agency insiders estimate the interview process will take a month or two to complete, after which new job assignments will be made.

Jobs on the mobility list range from posts in the Office of the Administrator to the regional offices. Positions to be affected include assignments as deputy chiefs of staff, directors, special assistants, appeals judges, inspectors general and deputy assistant administrators. These professionals not only are entrenched but also have clout at EPA, and they are paid accordingly. OPM says career SES-level pay ranges from $113,000 to $130,000 and beyond (not to exceed $166,700 in calendar year 2002).

Rare as they are, such job rotations are not unprecedented, and EPA's current management isn't without institutional knowledge of the process. The last such EPA shake-up was conducted in the late 1980s under then-administrator William Reilly. Not coincidentally, perhaps, EPPA's current deputy administrator, Linda Fisher, served under President George H.W. Bush as assistant administrator for policy, planning and evaluation before being confirmed in 1989 as assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances. She was involved in the 1980s redeployment. Fisher would not confirm where the process stands at this time.

INSIGHT interviews with EPA officials past and present have provided the pieces to the picture. One EPA official explained that, upon accepting an SES position, government workers are required to sign a mobility clause that subjects them to redeployment not only between jobs in different divisions and agencies but between geographic regions, as well.

Cautious insiders are bracing for mixed reactions by affected SES executives, even though the rotated officials will be asked their preferences for new postings. "We're hearing things in the hallway," an official notes. But, another pointed out, reassignments would not affect EPA employees below the SES level.

Charles Grizzle, a Washington-based environmental consultant who served during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations as EPPA's assistant administrator for administration and resources management, has seen this process before and says it happens too infrequently. "I think that people who stay in one [departmental] area can get tunnel vision and become too rigid in their thinking," he says. "When someone comes in fresh or new to the particular program area or discipline, they might bring some new and creative ways of achieving environmental goals. …