USFS retreats from contentious $10M ‘branding’ initiative

Greenwire article, “Agency retreats from contentious $10M ‘branding’ initiative” — excerpts:

“The Forest Service abandoned a $10 million rebranding effort today after the proposal sparked opposition from some employees and a government watchdog group.

The agency had announced plans in November to hire an outside firm to help it achieve “strategic organizational transformation, identity clarification and social purpose branding and branding management, and multicultural engagement and outreach.”

The request for proposals, which closed just before New Year’s Day, offered up to $10 million over the next five years.

Some called it a smart investment that could have boosted employee morale, bolstered public trust and strengthened support from Congress.

Others called it a waste of money that could have been better spent restoring watersheds, building trails, thinning unhealthy forests or beefing up staff.

But the agency is putting the effort on the backburner, for now.

The presumed front-runner for the branding contract was Metropolitan Group, a Portland, Ore.-based “social change” firm that the Forest Service previously tapped to help its Pacific Northwest region “reflect on its roots and discover its future.”

The firm said it helped the region’s 3,000 employees in Oregon and Washington state “rediscover” the mission outlined by the Forest Service’s first chief, Gifford Pinchot: “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”

“We clarified the region’s core identity using the greatest good as a frame to unify and communicate a complex array of ideas and work,” Metropolitan Group said on its website. “From this foundation we crafted a new vocabulary, look, and feel that employees are already using to more successfully engage with each other and the public.”

A sample of the firm’s work can be found here.

Metropolitan Group has also been contracted by the Forest Service’s Intermountain region based in Ogden, Utah, and the Pacific Northwest Research Station to “foster a more powerful and shared appreciation of agency mission amongst internal and external stakeholders.”

The total value of its contracts is believed to exceed $1 million.

The regional efforts were a “starting point for an agency-wide undertaking to prepare its workforce to engage in a cultural transformation and identity clarification,” according to the Forest Service’s November RFP.

Metropolitan Group currently holds a $527,000 contract that runs through next month to help Forest Service leaders take the regional branding and identity effort nationwide.

27 thoughts on “USFS retreats from contentious $10M ‘branding’ initiative”

  1. Thanks, Steve… my thought is “couldn’t these kinds of firms volunteer to help the government under which they flourish and write off their time as a donation?” Might make the government better (if their approaches are helpful) or at least not potentially waste scarce government funds..

    I think it would be interesting to hear from R-6 employees about the effort and what it meant to them.. what was your favorite thing about it and your least favorite thing about it?

    I wonder whether there was ever any effort to collect such feedback from externals and employees and where it might be documented. You know we talk a lot about “adaptive management” in terms of environmental monitoring but not so sure it occurs in organizational stuff either.

    I am curious as to what documented successes at the regional level led the WO to determine that such an effort would be helpful to the agency.

  2. Cultural transformation and identity clarification indeed! Exactly what the Forest Service needs to harvest more timber and manage its resources properly. Far better than woodsmen laying out cutting units or locating access roads.

  3. I wonder if the plan to ban the USFS “pine tree” logo/shield/badge might have influenced this inside-the-box analysis. We discussed this in several threads back in 2013, such as “Forest Service Gets to Keep Pine Tree Logo, But Controversy Points to Larger Problem: By Char Miller.”

    Maybe the USFS branding was a piece of the USDA branding campaign that led to the pine tree logo almost being dropped. Or maybe the USFS learned something from the logo backlash — learned that some in top management at USDA and USFS were oblivious to the pulse of the agency’s field personnel — and that it had better sound them out.

  4. Of course, $10 million might just be the perfect amount of money to pay for an internal branding program, which involves three GS-11’s and a GS-12 per Region, and a Round Table of GS-12’s and 13’s, based in DC. They would need a very large transportation budget to take them to every exotic Forest Service location, “checking the pulse” of the rank and file, in every far corner of the Empire….. errr…… The Agency *SMIRK*

    While they are at it, ask them why the Forest Service is so dang top-heavy. I’m just not buying the excuses, anymore.

    • I agree Larry.
      If the USFS wants to “rebrand” itself, it could start by having the Chief start pounding the table at whatever appropriate Congressional hearing or committee meeting(s) about the dismal support he and the agency are getting…ie, money!!!!! Funds!!!!!!! Budget!!!!!
      Of course, this won’t happen. Chiefs are now appointed by pols, for pols, and none of them have the guts to challenge those same pols. Afraid for their jobs.
      Again, as I have stated here before, we can thank President Reagan and his henchmen for the dismembering of a once-proud federal agency. He and his dismal environmental administration kicked the USFS down the slide to disgrace. And even Obama didn’t have the courage or interest in turning things around.

      • While you are mentioning presidents I think you should mention Clinton and his forest plan that did more to dismember the FS, BLM and rural communities than any other president, ever.

        • Well, I am no historian, nor an expert on any of this, but I do believe it was a revered USFS researcher and Chief and some other “experts” who came up with that Plan…not the President himself. He went along with the experts, of course. So if you want to blame him, OK by me. But hardly the same scenario as the gutting of the agency by Reagan.

  5. I’m a Region 6 employee and I have to say, I think it’s a very unfortunate that our national leadership backed down on this effort. I’ve seen first hand how this effort has inspired my co-workers (and me), enhanced our professional appearance, and changed our thinking about how we approach the public and talk about all of the great work that we do.

    As for the comment about the shield, this effort is the opposite of what USDA tried to do. One of the elements of this effort was embracing and emphasizing the shield as something to be proud of, and it added “for the greatest good” under the shield. You can see how it’s used in the link to the Met Group’s work provided in the article:

    I’ve led over two dozen public meetings and workshops over the last year dealing with travel management. I’ve used the visual materials that resulted from this branding effort, and more importantly, the thinking behind this effort helped us frame our approach to travel management in way that has conservative county commissioners standing with us and explaining to the public what we’re trying to do, on our behalf. I’d say that’s money well spent.

    The time is past that we can rely solely on sending more boots into the woods to work hard, looking for critters or measuring trees, to get our work done.

    • Could you be more specific about what they did that added value? Before I retired, we designed meetings and workshops with groups associated with the Us Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution at what seems to be less expense.. and Colorado Roadless was fairly controversial.. so I am honestly curious about what they did that was so helpful.

      Maybe other (poorer) units could learn from what you learned…

      Please, someone in the Forest Service, including public affairs folks, someone in the FS thought this was a good idea. They had some rationale. I bet there’s a briefing paper out there somewhere… could you please share this with us, the public?

      • I can only speak to some of the work Met Group did as part of Region 6’s Valuing People and Places effort.

        One tangible result was the development of a new style to present our information consistently and professionally. Again, you see this new style in the sample link to their work – it’s the shield with the tagline (“for the greatest good”), it’s the “s” curve along the right side of the slides (if you look closely, you’ll see the curve is actually a reverse image of the side of the FS shield), it’s the design of the pictures with the words embedded in the picture. This continues to be a work in progress, but there are some district offices now that have most to all of their FS brochures that have this consistent style; it drives me crazy when I go into an office and each brochure is a different style, with a different font, and usually not very professional looking. Another example is that all press releases from R6 forests have the same consistent look, whereas they used to vary greatly by forest.

        Less tangibly, they helped the region begin to change it’s thinking about identity. The premise is that every agency and organization has an identity, and it’s smart agencies/organizations that are intentional about their identity, rather than have it defined for them. To do this, Met Group interviewed hundreds of employees across R6, at all levels, to help distill the 3Vs that are critical to an identity – the region’s values, the region’s unique value, and its voice. From this work, it developed a program to take engage employees across the region. In these sessions, what was inspiring was having great conversations about why we work for the Forest Service and why we do the work we do. There’s a real focus on the importance of our values, and how they tie us together, whether we work in recreation, engineering, the front desk, or the RO. In other words, on the “why” we do the work we do, less on the “what”.

        And, more importantly, those values, when communicated intentionally and thoughtfully with the public and our partners, can lead to different kinds of discussions than we’ve been having in the past. For example, during my presentations on travel management, my first slide talks about the our values that are important to this effort – one is that it’s important to us to uphold the tradition of abundant access on NFS lands (btw, the Met Group spent time helping the region articulate its values in a way specific to travel management). Starting the presentation like that noticeably changes the dynamic in the room. Folks still didn’t necessarily agree with what we’re trying to do, but at least they understood, and they left feeling heard.

        Since the political and environmental changes in the 1990s that rocked this agency to its core, my impression is that there’s been a lot of disillusionment, confusion, disconnect between programs, employees, management, and especially, the public. The abysmal rankings of the agency in employee morale demonstrate this pretty clearly.

        My hope, and why I’ve been engaged in this effort, is that I strongly believe this is part of the solution to these challenges.

        • Rec Guy summarizes well Met Group’s R-6 work. One thing left out was the cost — $3.5 1.7 million since 2011. [Thanks to Rec Guy for correcting my arithmetic].

          Less costly alternatives were available. For example, Rec Guy points out his irritation with going “into an office and each brochure is a different style.” The regional forester could have chosen the best of those many styles and told everyone in the region to use it. Some people call that “leadership.”

          Similarly, the region’s forest supervisors and district rangers could have talked to (aka “interviewed”) FS employees to “distill” the region’s values. That, too, is leadership.

          Paying consultants $400/hour to do the work of FS leaders may temporarily staunch the agency’s bleeding morale, but it’s no long-term solution to the FS’s leadership crisis.

          • As Bubba points out below, sometimes leadership is knowing when to seek outside help. The FS probably has one of the most complex missions in government. Every supervisor and ranger comes to the job with their own background and specialties, and when it comes to finding a cohesive voice and image to project, having an outside group to lead that effort is essential. “360 reviews” are a very common tool for leaders and supervisors to have their effectiveness evaluated from multiple outside perspectives, and I think of this as a 360 review for the agency itself. And, at a cost of .01% of R6’s budget since 2011, very worth it if it’s successful.

            To Sharon’s question below, my view is from the recreation program. I work for what’s probably the largest provider of rec opportunities in the world, in terms of number of campsites, miles of trail, variety of uses allowed and managed for, etc., and yet people constantly ask me how I like working for the Park Service. That’s a problem, and I think it’s realized in the (lack of) attention we get in appropriations. The NPS is very intentional and professional about its brand, and it shows. Granted, it’s easier to do that with a less complex mission.

            Recreation is the most impactful thing the Forest Service does in terms of direct impact to GDP ($13b) and jobs created (obviously, clean water is more important, but our effect on that isn’t quantified anywhere I can find), and it’s certainly the vehicle through which most people come into contact with our work. If that’s how most people know and interact with the FS, then why don’t we have a bigger profile in that arena? And if that’s what people are most familiar with, how to we introduce them to everything else we do through it? How do we get people to understand that the beautiful forest they’re recreating in is the ever-evolving product of fire and timber and grazing and ecosystems and everything else? I think the overall impression the public gets is confusion about what it is we really do. Like Rec Guy says above, the internal disillusionment, confusion and disconnection has impaired our ability to connect with the public, and it’s why an outside agency is needed to help us figure it out.

  6. Sad. It’s an effort that needs to be undertaken. What’s $10m if we waste tens or hundreds more doing things poorly? What’s $10m if the increased exposure raises the profile of the agency and encourages more appropriations? How much work can get done for $10m, and will that work have as much effect as a wisely-spent campaign to refocus the agency? This was a proactive effort, not reactive, and I would submit that the reaction of retirees is in large part just that, a reaction, and indicative of the attitudes that have put the agency in the position it’s now in.

  7. Another Rec Guy… there are reasonable people on this blog and people with experience with all kinds of initiatives (retired and not)..

    Please.. tell us what they did for you that you couldn’t do for yourselves. I for one am honestly curious. I am hoping that readers don’t think the FS just “does things poorly” until some wise consultants come along to show you the Way.

  8. I have the feeling this is all more reinvention to break away from history in a deliberate manner. Psyops, basically.
    Replace the tree with some kind of green watersplash Obama-style logo, something that represents absolutely nothing. Caring for the land and serving people is a pretty clear statement — as was the disappeared banner on the boundary signs — remember “Land of Many Uses?”
    You look at the evidence of lack of care, and the systematic elimination of “people” — that’s a pretty big reality gap that the rebranding seems to be aimed at.

  9. I think i’s a shame that the USFS dropped this effort. These types of activities occur in every single major business (why else would these PR companies exists). These “branding” exercises are practiced by IBM, Apple, Caterpillar, CISCO, Walmart, Boeing, AT&T, Ford, Home Depot, and almost every other Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies. Why – because these efforts improve efficiency, customer satisfaction and ultimately the bottom line. They help managers, workers and leaders at all levels reassess issues, dynamics, and opportunities to refocus programs, projects and daily work to common core goals and elements. Believe it or not, its almost impossible for a large, diverse organization such as the USFS to do this on its own internally. We don’t have the experience, skill sets, and time to undertake this effort single handedly. Leadership is recognizing our limitations and seeking help to not just make a change but to identify the changes that need to be made. Those cheering this decision are unintentionally cheering for a less functional agency in the long run.

  10. Before responding to Bubba, it’s worth noting that this is the conversation the Forest Service should have had before it sought to expand this branding initiative nation-wide. When FSEEE sought answers from the FS about the contract, no one would talk — no one in Region 6, no one in the WO, no one anywhere. That unresponsiveness, combined with the sole-source, non-competitive contracting tactics and “take-out-the-trash” timing made for an unpalatable recipe.

    Bubba argues that the FS should practice corporate-style branding to “improve efficiency, customer satisfaction and ultimately the bottom line.” I’m all in favor of improving government efficiency, but am mystified how this contract would do so. The FS does not even measure its own efficiency, so how would it know whether this contract improved efficiency?

    As to “customer satisfaction,” let’s assume Bubba is talking about national forest recreation visitors. Note, however, that when it comes to total Forest Service revenue (i.e., what a corporation would be looking at with regard to its branding efforts), over 70% of the FS’s revenue is earned selling trees. There’s no evidence that this branding contract sought to increase FS tree sale revenue or tree purchaser satisfaction.

    Would this contract improve recreation visitor satisfaction? According to the Forest Service’s own data: “Customer satisfaction with recreation experiences on National Forests and Grasslands is very high: ninety-five percent of visitors are satisfied with their overall experiences, including nearly seventy-nine percent who report being very satisfied.” 95% isn’t good enough? What’s the marginal cost of increasing that number and is it worth paying?

    That leaves “ultimately the bottom line.” How could this re-branding contract affect the “bottom line” of the Forest Service’s recreation program? Congress sets the who, what, where, and when the Forest Service can charge recreation fees. It’s hard to imagine this branding contract changing FLREA (note that congressional consternation with the contract helped catalyze its cancellation).

    Could the re-branding contract increase the number of fee-paying “customers” who purchase national forest recreation? Bubba might be able to help answer that question empirically. Has Region 6 enjoyed a larger increase in recreation fee revenue since it started “Valuing People and Places” as compared to the NFS-wide average over the same period, i.e., since 2011?

    • I am going to take Andy at his word here, and if in fact it was sole source, that strikes me as perhaps a bit “good old boy.” But on the other hand, the sole source justification document should be FOIAble, I think.

      I think, again, that there is a rationale that was used to procure this contract. There is an evaluation document required somewhere. It would be nice if someone would just provide those to Andy. See to me, building trust through transparent, accountable actions on issues for which we don’t have our standard philosophical differences is what it’s all about.

      I agree with Andy that making things consistent is entirely possible without hiring outside help. For example I remember when webpages were made consistent (the end of the world as we know it!). Reta Laford, who deserves sainthood for her effort with standardizing PALS (NEPA project database) probably should get at least a $200K cash award… you see my point?

      If the problem is really the cultural phenomenon of “the cult of the line officer” such that no one can tell anyone else to standardize, one could argue that the money would be better spent on some learning and discussion about “what things would be helpful to the public to standardize across forests?”. Maybe bringing (gasp!) the public together in a discussion of Most Annoying FS Inconsistencies.

      We did branding at SAF and that was helpful but …that would be like one state society deciding to do branding. Let me say that again..

      Is the Forest Service one organization that could use some branding, or is it a loose linkage of independent regions? Because if it is the former, I think it’s kind of silly to do branding for the Fremont-Winema that doesn’t apply to the Modoc, or for the Colville that doesn’t apply to the Idaho Panhandle. Silly and unnecessarily expensive.

    • The AP report says “The Forest Service filed notice Nov. 28, the day after Thanksgiving, that it was soliciting bids to expand the campaign nationwide…” So, not sole-source. Some ability to publicly defend the effort would have been nice, though.

      I would love to know how the FS could measure efficiency. Again, I can only speak from the rec perspective, but I’m not even sure what that would mean, or how it would interact with measures other program areas might have. Is our goal more visitors? Better ecological conditions (which likely means less visitors)? On and on…

      As far as revenue goes, I can answer that question. From 2011-2013, rec fees grew .68% nationally, and 5.19% in R6. The region was also first in gross receipts in 2012 & 2013, after being second to R8 in 2011.

      • As reported by AP, the presumptive front-runner for the award was the Metropolitan Group. For example, bidders were warned “proposals envisioning compensation levels lower than those of predecessor contractors [i.e., Met Group — my edit] for the same work will be evaluated on the basis of maintaining program continuity, uninterrupted high-quality work, and availability of required competent professional service employees. Offerors are cautioned that lowered compensation for essentially the same professional work may indicate lack of sound management judgment and lack of understanding of the requirement.” The solicitation added that “failure to comply with these provisions may constitute sufficient cause to justify rejection of a proposal.”

        The contract also required monthly visits to Portland, OR, with these travel costs built into the bid proposal (“All travel to be performed in connection with the services to be rendered under this contract shall be included in the price for each individual Task Order and shall be at no additional expense to the Government”). Met Group is based in Portland. The combination of these two factors (no bidding below Met Group’s hourly rates and increased travel costs for bidders not located in Portland) would have made it tough for anyone other than Met Group to gain the contract. One may well ask, if the contract’s purpose is to “go national” why would monthly trips to Portland be necessary?

        The solicitation required the contractor to have “technical experts in Social Organization Identity Refinement, Organizational Transformation, Multicultural Engagement, Community Outreach/Public Will Building/Stakeholder Engagement, Leadership Development/Training; and Training and Technical Assistance,” and also barred the contractor from sub-contracting more than 50% of the cost for these skills, i.e., the majority of these skills had to be employed in-house. I don’t know what “Social Organization Identity Refinement” is, but it’s Met Group’s stock-in-trade. Similarly, all of the skills listed are featured on Met Group’s website. None of this is a surprise. The solicitation is candid that the sought-for work is an extension of the work being done (until 2/15) by Met Group in R6. It makes sense that the FS’s preferred contractor would be the current incumbent.

    • Thanks for mentioning that 70% of the FS revenue is earned selling trees.
      Sometimes people forget that, even people who work for the FS.

      • Well, that 70% number will shrink significantly, in Region 5 if mills won’t be bidding on projects cutting trees solely between 10″ and 19″ dbh. They are currently in limbo whether there will be any program until the Sierra Nevada Framework has been re-amended and gone through “proper channels”. Last time, it took 4 years, with an extremely motivated Republican leadership. how long will that take in today’s political climate? Last time, Ranger Districts jettisoned their entire temporary timber workforce. Basically, it’s a trainwreck, happening in slow motion. Enhanced drought and no thinning. Just TRY to look away!


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