You Got Mail

Solv.2

Click on the image of the envelope above that arrived recently in FSEEE’s mailbox and take a close look. Any idea what it might be? A credit card solicitation, perhaps? Some other type of junk mail?

Nope. The envelope contained an official letter soliciting our views regarding the Kisatchie National Forest’s plans for prescribed burning. We get notices like this all the time; one of our jobs at FSEEE is to keep an eye on what the Forest Service is up to across the national forest system.

Our concern is this: How would a member of the general public who is interested in a project on national forest lands have any idea what’s inside? There is no clue that the letter is from the Forest Service. Not knowing what “Solv” is, it seems likely that many would toss the letter into the round file, unopened. Solv, it turns out, is a consulting company based in McLean, Virginia, that counts among its clients a number of government agencies.

The Forest Service, of course, has long contracted out tasks it is required to do. Think national forest campgrounds, for example—the fireside chat by a friendly ranger is a thing of the past. For-profit companies run most Forest Service campgrounds these days.

A key part of the Forest Service’s mission is to keep the public informed about how it manages our public lands—it is, in fact, legally bound to issue notices about its projects to members of the public who ask for the information. It would help if the agency put its notices in envelopes that say “Forest Service.”

5 Comments

  1. You’re durn tootin! The Forest Service is losing its connection to the citizen-owners of the National Forest System whom it is supposed to serve–pursuant to its “Caring for the land and serving people” slogan as well as the law–through excessive outsourcing. I took heat for addressing this topic in the press about a dozen years ago, but I still do. You may find my editorial “Outsourcing by Any Other Name?” in the Fall 2014 OldSmokeys Newsletter at pertinent. That latest piece begins…

    “Some years ago courageous U.S. Forest Service personnel, retirees, and others who value the National Forest System stood strong–and at least somewhat successfully–against a presidential administration’s “competitive sourcing” efforts to turn much national forest management over to private contractors.
    “Yet the practice of outsourcing continues under other names–perhaps by design, or perhaps by default as another presidential administration focuses on other priorities–and raises the possibility the Forest Service could become a contract-administering rather than a field-operating organization.”

    And the piece goes on….

    Les Joslin
    Editor, OldSmokeys Newsletter

  2. The OMB review process for any federal agency to conduct social science (with sample sizes >9 ) is extremely onerous. Contracting this work out removes agency control of the details and administration of a study while (hopefully, if well done) still generating useful information to inform management decisions (e.g., study design/focus guided by an RFP). Importantly, contracted studies like this do not require OMB oversight. Thus, contracting this work out is often necessary to avoid months/years of delay associated with OMB review – even for efforts legitimately trying to connect with their public. I have worked on a few projects where the social science needs were contracted out in order to better connect with constituents and in a more timely manner than OMB would have afforded. Cynically, I sometimes think the combination of onerous oversight with understaffed/under-budgeted OMB posts is a purposeful way to slow the system down and then point to its inefficiencies and disconnect from citizens as reasons why federal management can’t work. I’m not saying it always does work, but constraints like this don’t help. These rules also preclude federal agency logos etc. from accompanying any questionnaire that does not have OMB approval, so I’m not surprised there is no FS logo on the front. Regardless of all that, there are ways for contractors to properly communicate the purpose and application of survey instruments to respondents on outgoing envelopes and in cover letters without violating OMB rules – all of which help increase response rates, public engagement, and useful study results. Poor execution here, but not necessarily as indicative of complete disregard for public input as it might seem? Of course, it’s up to agencies to have some qa/qc of the work contractors execute for them – not exactly sure what OMB allows here, but I guess it is extremely limiting.

  3. And I suppose if your goal is to increase outsourcing, you’d make a rule that requires onerous oversight of work done in-house and removes that burden for outsourced jobs…and then understaff and underfund the review body to really drive the point home.

  4. Hmm. I think that opening public comment on a project, or plan, or even a regulation
    does not require OMB approval. My understanding is that “social science” type of surveys do. And I don’t know where the line is in terms of contracting out or “cooperating with a university” and whether or how that changes the requirement.

    I could find out if we need to from folks I know, but I suspect that there are others on the blog who know this already.

    Here is something from USGS on the topic: http://www.usgs.gov/customer/page9.html

    PS It makes me smile to see Andy and Les agreeing!

    • Public comment is different than systematic survey mehtods. And partnership agreements do not alleviate the need for OMB oversight; only fully externalized agreements where the agency has relinquished control over question design and study administration are exempt.

      Still, despite providing a possible explanation for the lack of agency identification on this mailing, this doesn’t speak to whether this is an effective or appropriate execution of outreach. I just think it could be more complicated than outsourcing due solely to apathy.

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