Sharon’s Post-Election Visualization

secs office 2

Remember, a while back on Election Day, I asked in this post for visualizations of this conversation. We were to imagine ourselves invited to the Cage and being asked to sit by the Secretary.

“Sharon, I’ve heard from my staff that you have passion, knowledge about and great personal experience with our National Forests. I’ve brought you in for this discussion because I, too, care, about them deeply, and I’m interested in your perspective. I’m looking for advice. I understand that the Forest Service is only one piece of what the USDA does, but it’s a very important piece. I believe that our public lands, in one way or another, touch the soul of each American. If you were sitting in my chair, what would you do differently?”

When I thought about it, I had a broad range of imaginative policy ideas. But when I visualized it, something else entirely came up. The right brain and the heart have their own voice.

“Mr. Secretary, I think the most important thing you can do in the President’s second term is.. I hate to sounds like Moses (just call me Moishe Friedman).. but let my people (Forest Service employees, or former people) go! I mean, in my opinion, you need to let up on the reins in a couple of areas, or otherwise, just arrange to move the Forest Service to Interior.

A long time ago, in a Region far, far away, I worked at a Forest Service nursery where there were Wage Grade and GS folks working. They were always comparing notes about the pros and cons about being one or the other. This is basic human nature. If you diverge too much in treating Forest Service employees from the way that BLM or FWS or Park Service folks are treated, people are going to compare notes. And when things have a tendency to be worse for the Forest Service, the result is not going to be good for morale.

Diversity
Now, the Chief may have told you, but there aren’t that many diverse folks in the natural resource professions. You must know this as you picked the current Chief, Tom Tidwell, Harris Sherman, Jay Jensen, and Butch Blazer, and I’m sure you looked around. At the same time, when you run the numbers, you also need to look at women. We tend to be a smaller percentage than men of any ethnic group in natural resources, and a smaller percentage of veterans (less than what you would expect, which would be 50%). So if you and others are not careful, you could end up being diverse in many ways, but not with women,which I think is very important for a variety of reasons. If all you’ve done is increase the diversity of complexions of folks who discuss elk or turkey hunting at the morning staff meeting, have you really diversified?

When I retired, I worked for a black man, who worked for a Hispanic man, who worked for a white man (the Chief) who worked for a white man (Harris) who worked for another white man (you) who worked for a black man (the President) helped by a white man (the vice-president). All I could see is an unbroken linkage of testosterone molecules from me to President Obama. Even the President is having trouble with the Cabinet, as in this Denver Post story, so I get it. So I think you need to keep this in mind as you fill positions and look at your agencies filling positions. But enough on that.

The Forest Service is looking for the same kinds of folks that BLM and FWS are. If you want to diversify the Forest Service, it’s gotta look like at least as good a place to work, or a better place. As they say, it should be an “employer of choice.”

But some of the current efforts, to some of us, look both draconian and silly at the same time. I know your heart is in the right place, but the systems don’t exist in some cases, to get you’re the results you want, and in actuality it looks like a Dilbert cartoon out there. “Hire diverse people but you have no way of knowing if they are and you will get in trouble if you don’t.” “We have targets but we can’t tell you what they are or write down what they are because we know we’re not supposed to have them.”

Like I said, I know your heart is in the right place. So here’s what I’d do instead. I’d get a diverse panel of young leaders, tell them to work with the schools that produce people with qualifications we need, and give them 2 months to come up with a plan. I’d ask them to identify administrative barriers that need to be removed. I’d publish the plan and vet it online with comments from the rank and file. Then I’d work the plan. I might even go in with the other natural resource agencies on a plan, to maximize the taxpayer bang for the buck.

Travel

Again, the reductions in the Forest Service appear to be much more draconian than fellow natural resource agencies. What’s up with that? In any large organization, the top of the food chain doesn’t get into the weeds of how to manage subordinates’ budgets. If the USFS needed to save X millions of dollars annually, it would have made sense to identify the amount of savings and then say to the Chief, go forth and cut your spending. Instead, you specifically targeted travel after the agency had been reducing on its own for the previous three or more years, the end result is that some important work isn’t getting done because of the constraint, in some cases employee safety is being compromised, and it disproportionately punishes units that were proactive in reducing travel costs before the current quest for reductions. Somehow I don’t think Homeland Security can’t go get terrorists because of their “travel cap” (yes, I know they’re not a natural resource agency, but you get the point).

So maybe “work” needs to be defined differently and separated from meetings. One of the problems is that perhaps some people go to too many meetings, but the draconian aspect of this policy has cut into people’s ability to: develop relationships with their peers and potential partners, provide oversight for how federal funds are spent, and mentoring of younger employees by older employees, professional development, and membership in professional societies.

I brought a copy of Mike Dombeck’s 1999 letter on professional societies (attached to this post as Professional Society Letter. Take a look. All of the things in that letter are still true. It seems like the travel cap has had an impact on people’s participation in keeping up their professional credentials, both meetings and training. It’s extremely demoralizing for our employees, makes the FS an employer “to avoid” rather than “of choice” and keeps the taxpayer from having the best professional advice in an era when we write in regulation that the agency needs to look at the “best available science.”

Now I realize that you are just setting general direction, and people can and do, possibly, interpret things differently down the food chain. In my opinion, the best thing that you could possibly do 1) set up a group to examine why USDA travel policies appear to be different from other federal agencies,
And 2) ask the Chief to update Mike Dombeck’s letter. and clarify that professional development is still encouraged.

Communication

The election is over. You have a second term. So just lighten up! If people don’t get to tell their story, the public can’t make good decisions about their public lands. Sure, sometimes there will be screwups in a large organization. But there are enormously talented, hardworking, public servants out there. Just let them do their job, and if some do it wrong, hold them accountable. What you are saying implicitly, when you hold the reins as tight as they have been, is that you don’t trust them to do their job. Bad, bad, bad for morale. Bad for the public. It’s just all around bad. You might even ask previous administrations for tricks of the trade in communicating in a decentralized organization without going wildly awry. It seemed to me before I retired that it was worse than previous administrations. Part of that might be the growth of social media but it seems to me that can be an advantage if you trust your people.. more ways to get the story out.

Like I said, I know your heart is in the right place, and I think you could do a lot for morale just by setting up groups to look at these two things (travel and diversity) compare us to other agencies, find the best ways, reduce the Dilbertiana, and let the communicators communicate (with guidelines, of course).

Thank you so much for this chance to chat. I hope you take my suggestions in the spirit in which they are offered. I believe that if you and the FS are working better together, you can get much farther down the road in the President’s direction.

I’d like to thank the two employees and one retiree who helped edit and provided feedback on this visualization. If you disagree with the points I made, or have other ideas, please comment!

And I still would like to get visualizations from others… not too late!

10 Comments

  1. I like what is said here, particularily the tone. The work force by and large is deeply dedicated to the Forest Service mission, but interference by the Administration can and has severely stressed its ability to perform. Our mission offers plenty of opportunity to achieve social objectives as evidenced by the FS contributions to the CCC, Job Corps, work programs, diversity, etc. whild still placing mission as primary. Although I might phrase a letter to the Secy. a little differently, I certainly endorse this sample of what needs to be said.

  2. Sadly, many are still discouraged that substantive change is not coming fast enough for jaded employees. They don’t see enough change in lawsuit reforms, diversity and “culture change”. Some just don’t care if current programs crash and burn, and wonder where relief can possibly come from. Some feel that ANY new program has to be better than the current one. Some employees near retirement age are just “mailing it in”.

    The revolving door of temporaries doing “Federal McForestry” frustrates timber programs across the country. As timber plans get more and more complex, inexperienced temporaries are used to implement complicated project specifications. The Forest Service is unwilling to spend the money to create career ladders for quality temporaries. Part of that problem is the inability to hire the most qualified candidates, regardless of diversity and mandated hiring preferences. So, the Forest Service feels they are better off continuing to hire temporaries, with their limitations and inexperience, instead.

    • Larry, so here’s a question for you and for the others (whom I know might not be willing to speak on record).

      “Can you name three doable things for the Chief or the Secretary that would really make your world better?

      Or “is there anything that could happen that would decrease your jadedness substantially and (to the pre-retirees) make you not “mail it in’?

      It seems to me that this is a conversation that really needs to take place. That’s what I meant about morale surveys being the beginning of a discussion not an end in themselves. The next step of the conversation would be to have open, honest dialogue about how to make things better. That’s what never seems to happen, and I don’t know why.

      One reason is a lack of trust that there won’t be reprisals, but I would think that we could have a written dialogue moderated by a contractor to keep privacy.

      So why not?

      • Good thougts Sharon. I think part of the problem is, our work force simply can not understand the circumstance the Chief and the FS leadership is in. When we have an Administration that is driven by counter missions, sometimes the Chief is unable to convice them otherwise. The Chief could challenge, but he or she will have to accept that they will be removed and possibly be replaced with a political appointee. Somehow we must restore the respect previous Chief’s have had by Congress and the communities we serve. When we consolidate Ranger Districts and Forests that lead to the Rangers and on the ground leadership not present in the communities we serve we are in deep trouble.

      • Both the Chief and the Secretary should be working towards making the Forest Service less top-heavy with their permanent workforce. How many jobs could be created with a reduction of GS-11’s and above? Today’s projects require more expertise, and more acres to cover. With temporaries limited to around 6 months of work, projects are taking longer to complete. I would think that most people do, indeed, want quality people making those on-the-ground decisions. There is enough money to fill these positions but, making government bigger is not politically-desirable to either party. I would think that there would be some way to reward highly-qualified long-term temps with a hiring preference, regardless of sex, race or age.

  3. What I intuited (and I could be wrong, of course, because we have no data on this, in the People’s Database nor elsewhere.) , is that many employees like the policies and/or believe that ,as the judges in the 10th Circuit said, “elections have consequences” and they are assigned to serve the President (I think that’s in the Code of Ethics, although not grumbling about some Presidents is probably not). The policies that I was involved with when working, are within the broad realm of reasonableness. What folks seemed to be most grumpy about are silly and ineffective internal policies. This actually started before the Obama administration. Remember ASC? Competitive Sourcing? Centralizing IT?

    Wouldn’t it be nice to have data on this? sigh…

    How can you work on a problem without data?

    Why is it important to project the population of stream invertebrates under different climate change scenarios in 100 years, but not important to know why people are unhappy today when we could actually fairly readily do something about it?

  4. I’ve noticed the FS has become more political over my 30 + years. And Zane is right when he said the FS has become removed from the communities. We used to have remote stations at the remote communities on the forest and would have folks there in the summer. Most of that is gone now. I remember in the 90’s when they had a poster tthat said embrace diversity, well I think they have a diversity of opinion, and often no clear goals, or direction. The fire folks have become more removed from the forest. They used to do project work during slack time but now they tend to do fire only. We have LEOs (law enforcement officiers) on the Forest that report to the region, not the Forest. It isn’t easy to get an LEO when you need one. Every one seems to be doing thier own thing or program and are functioning less and less as a team with common goals. I was on an ID team for a large collaborative project, and the ID team had more problems coming to agreement on alternatives and actions than the collabortive citizens group which had a wide spectrum of interests. I could go on… but I think you get the point of why moral is way down, or at least my take on it. How to fix it, I’m not sure, leadership can’t do it alone.

  5. Mike,

    Your and Zane’s comments remind me of a previous Regional Forester (the same one who did something, albeit controversial on the morale survey). He thought, sure, we can’t afford to keep people everywhere, but we could keep one person in key communities as a contact. And if it’s the right person, with the right skills that could do a great deal.

    If I remember the story correctly, one community even gave the employee a free office in their building. With today’s technology (and irrational travel restriction policies) it seems to me that this idea still makes a great deal of sense. Of course, relationships and trust don’t show up on any OMB scorecards…

    I ,too, have seen ID teams in which each person has his or her own silo (to their credit they might not want to work that way, but there is no time to coordinate), and writes stuff that doesn’t really make sense, and then becomes angry with the person (ID team leader) who tries to clarify what they are saying, and ensure it is not opposite, on the same topic, to another specialist. There is a risk that an individual who gets angry will not participate on future projects and/or leak their “findings” (in my view, sometimes an opinion piece) to outside groups. We know a great deal about what makes good ID teams and bad ID teams (there has been research on it, I believe funded by NEPA for the 21st Century). But that certainly doesn’t make it easy to accomplish.

    You have the people you have, and have to work with what you have.

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