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The Insider

ORD Shuffle Marks Latest Trump EPA Bid To Overhaul Agency Operations

EPA’s announcement that it will reorganize the Office of Research and Development (ORD) is the latest step in the Trump administration’s effort to transform how the agency operates, building on its previous moves to restructure regional operations and improve EPA's efficiency.

The latest reorganization -- especially its shift of the previously-independent Office of the Science Advisor (OSA) to a post within ORD’s Office of Science Policy -- is likely to renew claims from critics of the Trump administration that the changes in EPA’s structure are meant to enhance political appointees’ control over theoretically apolitical functions such as enforcement and science.

For example, officials with one of EPA’s staffing unions have argued that the regional reorganization would overhaul existing enforcement policies and chains of command in ways that bolster political leadership's ability to push reduced regional enforcement and more-lenient compliance.

Some observers have similarly criticized the reorganization of ORD, first reported by Inside EPA last fall and formally announced March 8. Those critics feared the change would undermine the independence of the agency's top science advisor, among other adverse impacts.

The reworking of EPA’s research operations combines a previously-announced plan to shift OSA into the science policy office with a broader restructuring that would see the number of offices within ORD from 13 to eight, though the agency says there will be no cuts to staff:

EPA Announces ORD Reorganization, Merging With Science Advisor Office
EPA has announced plans to overhaul its Office of Research & Development (ORD) that includes merging the independent Office of the Science Advisor (OSA) with ORD’s policy office, a move some observers have previously warned could hinder OSA’s independence but that others say addresses ongoing agency resource limits.

When officials first floated that change, it drew criticism but also some support from current and former agency staff, some of whom saw it as a way to potentially remedy resource constraints faced by both OSA and ORD.

In a statement announcing the plan, EPA said it would “better support the Agency’s core mission of protecting human health and the environment. . . . The proposed structural changes will increase the impact of ORD’s research efforts and better address the increasingly complex environmental challenges of the 21st century."

Meanwhile, EPA is still moving forward with its other reorganization plans covering regional offices and other divisions. In particular, the regional restructuring is moving forward after the month-long shutdown forced officials to suspend their consultation with staff unions and Congress until funding was restored:

EPA Resumes Regional Reorganization, Efficiency Plans After Shutdown
EPA is moving quickly after the end of the government shutdown to resume its plan for reorganizing the agency's 10 regional officials to more closely mirror headquarters' divisions, an effort aimed at improving EPA's efficiency that has drawn inquiries from Congress and concern from union officials that it might weaken programs like enforcement.

The regional reorganization would rework each of the 10 regional offices to include eight program-specific divisions that mirror the structure of its headquarters operations. Those divisions would include Air and Radiation, Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, Water, and Superfund and Emergency Management, among others.

EPA has sent the plan to Congress for review, kicking off a statutory 30-day deadline for lawmakers to file objections before the agency can proceed, but it remains unclear whether any such objections have been lodged. In an interview with Inside EPA, agency deputy chief and chief of operations Henry Darwin said he has been working to address concerns from Congress but did not state directly how those concerns were raised or by whom.

By contrast, the transition to “Lean” techniques meant to boost efficiency at EPA is ongoing. Darwin said in the same interview that staff at roughly half of the regional offices have been trained in new techniques to identify inefficient processes and take steps to improve them. EPA began the training regimen last spring in Region 7 and announced a goal of conducting similar trainings at 80 percent of the agency in two years.

Keep reading Inside EPA for further developments on the ongoing Trump administration effort to overhaul the agency and its operations.