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Swimmer and Martin: Reorganization efforts will strengthen accountability and improve services

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Ask any manager of a large organization with a winning track record and you soon learn that the key to their success is a willingness to change. Not just change for the sake of change but sensible, thoughtful reorganization designed to eliminate weaknesses, create efficiencies, prepare for future challenges and build upon the strengths, talents and abilities of the people who must carry out the organization's day-to-day functions.

For the past 18 months, under the leadership of Secretary Gale Norton, senior officials of the U.S. Department of the Interior have undertaken such an effort. We have focused our attention and resources with a single goal in mind: strengthening and reshaping the way the Department delivers services and manages its trust relationships for the benefit of American Indian and Alaska Native people.

This effort has been nothing short of historic. It has been marked by the most extensive and detailed consultation with Tribal leaders ever undertaken. Literally dozens of meetings were held with American Indian and Alaska Native leaders across the nation starting in November of 2001, concluding this past fall. The result was a detailed and thoughtful reorganization of the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST), the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs (AS-IA) and the BIA. Not only are we reorganizing but there will be well over 100 new positions added to trust operations during the next two years.

Last month, Secretary Norton signed the revision of the Department's operational manual that began the gradual transformation of these agencies. A few changes have already taken effect but, as is often the case with such a large organization, the bulk of the changes will occur over time. During the course of the coming month, we will be providing detailed briefings to employees of the Department and Tribal leaders on the upcoming changes and the timetable we are using to complete those changes.

This reorganization will allow the Department of the Interior to provide important services to Indian country more efficiently and effectively. We expect that it will result in a noticeable improvement in the level of service our organizations currently provide to American Indian and Alaska Native people.

In particular, the reorganization features a renewed emphasis on tribal economic development, self-determination and self-governance policies and projects. It provides a substantially greater level of accountability with the addition of regional trust administrators and trust officers who will serve as a resource for trust transactions. The plan also dedicates the necessary employees and resources to consolidate and improve services for beneficiaries.

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We have incorporated many fundamental concepts within this reorganization plan that were developed with Tribal leaders through our consultation efforts. Principally, we have listened to the suggestion that any changes should keep the management decision-making for trust assets at the agency level, where vast expertise and knowledge of the needs of tribes and individuals is already in place. The plan establishes a system of unprecedented oversight for trust asset management and relies on the depth of knowledge of those at the local level to make sure it is efficient and responsive.

Within the Office of the Special Trustee, we have established a Deputy Special Trustee for Trust Accountability to be responsible for a new Trust Program Management Center, trust training and the administration of trust regulations, policies and procedures. The creation of the Trust Center with a field staff of trust officers under the direction of the Office of the Special Trustee will provide improved accountability and beneficiary services with a renewed focus at the agency level.

The reorganization plan also builds upon the principles of self-governance and self-determination by creating a new position of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Development Policy and expanding the role of the Office of Self-Governance to include policy development and the coordination for all self-determination programs for tribes.

This effort is consistent with President Bush's management agenda. Developed through consultation with the principal leaders on Indian issues in the Congress, the plan earned the approval of key congressional committees, which approved the Department's request to reallocate Federal resources to carry out the plan.

The reorganization of these key agencies within the Department of the Interior is a major undertaking but it is essential to improve the management of trust resources and improve services to Tribes and individuals across Indian country. By embedding the key principles we developed in consultation with Tribal leaders from across the nation, we are confident that this plan will provide the most cost effective, efficient and successful trust management system possible.

Ross Swimmer, Special Trustee for American Indians, served as Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs in the administration of President Ronald Reagan and is a former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Aurene Martin, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and previously served as senior counsel to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.