AVUE and the Forest Service…Intellectual Property Concept Runs Amok

O Glinda, where are you now that the FS needs you?
O Glinda, where are you now that the FS needs you?

Thanks to Matthew for finding this and posting as a comment..

Last September, the United States Forest Service decided not to renew a longstanding contract with Avue Digital Services, a privately held firm in Tacoma that had been hosting the agency’s online jobs database since 2005. The Avue license cost the Forest Service more than $34 million in the past seven years. But the data created from that pricey partnership is now lost to the federal government; under contract, Avue retains proprietary ownership of the position descriptions it generated for the Forest Service. Now the agency faces the incredible task of rewriting potentially 40,000 position descriptions from scratch.

This development recently came to the attention of Andy Stahl, executive director of the Eugene-based nonprofit Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. A friend of Stahl’s from within the Forest Service complained to him of the seeming waste of taxpayer dollars over the years, and of the frustration of having to draft new position descriptions from a blank slate.

“She was upset because she thought that the money spent with Avue had not bought the government anything,” Stahl recalls. “All the work had to be redone.”

Stahl promptly requested copies of the Forest Service’s Avue contract as well as the agency’s payment records to Avue, all of which he later shared with the Independent. The development is particularly galling, he says, because Avue generated much of its data using previously existing Forest Service position descriptions—meaning the agency can’t use those as a template in redrafting either. Stahl wrote a scathing blog post about what he calls the “Avue debacle” in early January.

“The notion that you should…have somebody outside the government writing the document that says what government employees are supposed to do strikes me as bizarre,” Stahl says. “Here at [Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics], I wouldn’t contract with the Sierra Club to write the position descriptions for the people who work here.”

The Creation of Silliness

On the first day, Forest Service employees wrote position descriptions, and they saw that they were good, and that was the evening and the morning of the first day. The second day administrators came and said “you must take your position descriptions and convert them to AVUE. Even though it seems ass-backwards to make people do things to feed a computer program, that is what you must do, or we won’t let you hire anyone.” The third day there was much mourning, weeping and groaning by employees and the plaintive wail of “but is the PD in AVUE?” arose from the valley. On the fourth day employees had accomplished the task.. almost all PDs were in AVUE. There was peace and the buzzing of happy electrons around employees’ computers. On the fifth day, the administrators returned to the valley and said “we’re getting rid of AVUE, and by the way, all the PDs that you labored over, with such great effort so that your head was spinning, even though you know that PDs can’t possibly keep up with the real world of changing responsibilities, retirements and budget cuts, and you know you don’t have the time to keep them up as living documents, you now must not use the ones you developed so painfully, yea, only a short time ago. Because despite the fact that you wrote them, they do not belong to you.”
On the sixth day there was much weeping, groaning, and wailing in the valley again, plus incredulity that their work could belong to someone else. There was some joy that AVUE would be gone; but fear that the replacement would be worse. The optimists argued that it couldn’t be worse; the pessimists were not so sure.

Later that day, Glinda, the Good Administrator, put out an email. “We are searching the network for all documents with “PD” in them. We will date those and provide them to you if they were pre-AVUE; we are also setting up a task team to organize standard PDs, and help people who need it in writing them. Finally, if AVUE actually takes us to court over this issue, we plan to launch a public relations campaign to boycott AVUE products. This is BS and we are not going to take it lying down.” And the people in the valley rested on the seventh day, content that Glinda had their backs.

If I were still an employee, I would like administrative problems that affect multitudes of employees and take lots of taxpayer bucks to have the same scrutiny as forest fires. So for example, this issue would have an outside review, with the idea of not placing blame so much as learning what to do better next time. Perhaps it was something in the procurement regulations, and finding out what happened will save all the Feds beaucoup bucks. This outside review would be posted publicly and perhaps open for comment. To me, if this doesn’t happen, the behavior says “we really don’t care.” Fires are important, but you all, wasting your time on a recurring basis, is not. Even though I am absolutely sure that in their hearts, all the people running the FS do care very much.

10 thoughts on “AVUE and the Forest Service…Intellectual Property Concept Runs Amok”

  1. This makes me sick to my stomach as a job seeker. I know how frustrating it is as an employee when the organization changes hiring methods and all must adapt…particularly when was supposed to be “streamlined” and “efficient” and “paperless” turns into the biggest debacle ever. But on the other side of things, as a biologist who has been trying to enter the federal workforce, the AVUE experience was absolutely horrifying. I finally gave up and stopped even applying. It is frustrating enough to apply to federal jobs and never get a response, takes months to find out if anything is actually happening with your application, but with AVUE it was like getting sucked into a dark cave that you could not get out of! And I see now that Bonneville Power Administration is using them. Great.

  2. This can’t possibly be true. Official works of federal employees are in the public domain. If Avue is claiming ownership they are committing copyfraud. Am I missing something here?

    I’d still like the Avue PDs to go away.

  3. Hamis. Based on the story, it sounds like Andy did a FOIA and read the contract (I hope his organization pays him Soul Destruction Hazard Pay for reading federal contracts).

    Andy, maybe if OGC attorneys were not working on the fire retardant case, they might have had more time to review contracts? 😉

  4. I don’t enjoy reading federal contracts either, but I would be very interested in knowing how a federal agency thinks it can transfer a copyright that doesn’t exist. My guess is that the contract is vague, or contains an error and cannot be enforced. On the other hand, government officials sometimes ignore the rules when the rules get in their way.

  5. The subscription agreement/contract with AVUE starts on page 3 of this document.

    Limitations on the use of AVUE-generated documents are found on several pages, including in sections 5.3, 5.5, and 5.8. Also 13.1, 13.2. See page 29 for restrictions on the use of Archived documents, including position descriptions, especially the “WARNING” against using any AVUE-generated documents to create an alternative or competing HR database or system.

    • Hi Andy,

      I’m not sure the prohibitive details of the contract would hold up under rigorous scrutiny. I’ve been initiating/managing Fed contracts for nearly 20 years now in multiple agencies (and yes, Sharon, there should be Soul Destruction Hazard Pay associated with that kind of torturous duty). It’s certainly a horrible contract (both stylistically as well as how the Terms & Condictions are defined), but there are holes in it that would allow the FS to get what they need from what they arleady got. If it ever went before a court, I think Carahsoft/Avue would be toast for preventing use of the Gov-owned content, and the FS would certainly be embarrassed by what they coulda/shoulda done. FS would have to play a little hardball, but at the end of the day, I think Avue would serve its own interests best by walking away from the publicity they’d get from what they tried to do. If you’re interested in yacking about it, let me know.

  6. Can you think of a better reason to stop outsourcing all this work to private contractors?
    If the USFS and DOJ had any ____
    at all, they would tell this outfit to go to Hell and use the job descriptions as they see fit. Let them sue.


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