Bonneville Power Administration’s hiring and promotion practices get stinging critique by Department of Energy audit

Source: Print By Ted Sickinger, The Oregonian • Posted: Friday, September 6, 2013

The U.S. Department of Energy released a scathing report Friday on the Bonneville Power Administration, which power from 31 hydroelectric dams to 140 publicly owned utilities, and operates the bulk of the region’s electric grid. (The Associated Press/Rick Bowmer (File photo))

The U.S. Department of Energy on Friday released a stinging critique of human resources activities at Bonneville Power Administration.

The overall conclusion of a triennial audit of the Portland based power marketing agency was that its hiring and promotion activities are “NOT EFFECTIVE.” The audit revealed “pervasive misapplications” of and “system departures” from federal hiring guidelines and laws.

The findings of the 2013 Human Capital Management Accountability Program audit, released under Freedom of Information Act requests from several parties, go well beyond the allegedly isolated and well-intentioned process errors that BPA managers say their underlings made based on bad policy advice.

The audit reveals a troubling list of cultural issues, including a blatant disregard for federal laws, a broad lack of knowledge, limited transparency and distrust between management and employees.

Indeed, many of the specific problems were identified as required actions to be corrected in the agency’s 2010 audit. Instead, the 2013 audit said the problems had gotten significantly worse.

The Energy Department has suspended all of BPA’s human resources authorities, decertified more than two dozen human resources specialists and suspended two of the agency’s top executives. The moves shocked regional stakeholders, and are red flags for those wary of federal meddling in Northwest affairs.

Bonneville is the region’s biggest utility, selling power from 31 hydroelectric dams to 140 publicly owned utilities, and operates the bulk of the region’s electric grid.

Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council, which represents public utilities, said it’s too early to assess the impact of DOE’s findings.

BPA managers “need to make sure they’re running efficiently and delivering on their core mission while they’re dealing with these issues,” Corwin said.

The other shoe yet to drop is the Office of Inspector General’s review of whistleblowers’ complaints at BPA.

The Inspector General’s office issued a management alert July 16 after receiving “credible” reports of retaliation against whistleblowers about hiring violations and discrimination against veterans. The DOE placed BPA Administrator Bill Drummond and Chief Operating Officer Anita Decker on indefinite leave and escorted them out of the agency’s Lloyd District headquarters.

DOE still hasn’t said why the two were suspended. Decker was temporarily reinstated to testify before Congress about the agency’s actions. Two weeks ago, she reportedly crashed her SUV off the loading dock at BPA’s parking garage after an interview with the Office of Inspector General.

A number of current and former BPA managers downplay the extent of the problems. While they admit BPA improperly eliminated job applicants, they say the sole intent was to winnow pools of qualified applicants to manageable numbers. A BPA policy analyst in human resources okayed the procedure.

Decker told members of Congress that the practice was terminated in May 2012, two days after an employee raised the issue. Furthermore, BPA managers, including Decker, have suggested that some of the whistleblower complaints were launched by disgruntled employees.

The employee who initially complained to the IG, for example, was reportedly under review for poor performance, while the policy analyst who okayed one of BPA’s most egregious hiring practices was reportedly under review for misusing agency credit cards. Neither employee responded to calls for comment.

BPA has circulated talking points to managers instructing them in the “key messages and storyline.” Those include: 1) “We have a path forward,” as BPA now understands the scope of the problems and potential solutions; 2) “We are off to a good start toward corrective action,” and 3) “This is a real opportunity for constructive change” and for “building world-class” human resources capabilities.

Continuing coverage of the Bonneville Power Administration investigation by the Department of Energy.In his weekly communiqué with BPA employees on Friday, Acting Administrator Elliot Mainzer said the agency was making strides in offering jobs to disadvantaged applicants eligible for priority placement.

He also said the team continued to develop its audit response, which is supposed to be ready Oct. 11.

The cover letter to the DOE audit says BPA faces a “monumental” task in redressing its hiring errors between 2010 and 2013. It also suggests that managers’ bad-seed – isolated-problem explanation is fairly threadbare.

Among the audit findings and comments in the cover letter:

** In 54 percent of hiring cases reviewed, major violations were identified, including applicants being “erroneously disqualified or mis-qualified,” using lack of particular skills to “screen-out” applicants, and violating veterans’ and merit principles. In more than half of these cases, it was noted that BPA contractors were selected for the positions.

** A “broad lack of knowledge and understanding of the laws, regulations and DOE policies” for managing a federal workforce, and a “blatant disregard” of policy guidance from DOE and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

** Inappropriate use of essay questions and selective placement factors, discrepancies in applicant evaluations, and inappropriate access to information by management.

** Lack of transparency. Challenges obtaining timely and accurate data, which will hinder correction of errant hiring cases.

** A relatively large human resources team — 110 for a staff of 3,100 — but “a predominant number of key HR positions had been filled by individuals with no federal HR experience.”

** A gap identifying and developing emerging leaders… Existing programs target existing supervisors.

** An atmosphere of distrust. Certain groups, in particular Human Capital, exhibit a lack of teamwork and communication between managers and employees.

** BPA proposed adverse actions against employees who raised concerns or cooperated with officials investigating the agency.