Assuming the Best About Federal Employees and Their Challenges: Why Not?

When I was a post-doc at North Carolina State University I worked for a Pioneering Research Scientist (the top level of scientists in the Forest Service), Dr. Gene Namkoong. He used to say something I can’t remember exactly, but it was something like “when the Forest Service does something bad, don’t assume malevolence or bad faith when they could have simply been disorganized, made a mistake, or so on.” I can’t remember his exact words, but it gave me the impression of good people bumbling along in a complicated system. Gene died a few years ago, or I would ask him.

Assuming the best about people (I suppose it could be argued that the FS is an institution and not people, but does that matter in this context?) is a long held spiritual value, at least in some traditions.  Another value is humility. Still another value is being “impeccable with your word” as in the Four Agreements. Political races, in fact, partisan politics itself, encourage the opposite.  Thankfully we are out of this for now, and President-elect Biden has spoken a great deal about unity- specifically, that people who think and vote differently are not our enemies.  Hopefully The Smokey Wire’s work, seeing through the recurrent partisan spin, hearing the voices of people who think differently, and trying our best to understand each other, will help with the new administration’s efforts.

Remember when the 60-day royalty rate reduction for oil and gas folks was being covered?  That was the end of the story for many.  In Colorado, though, we do have folks who investigate further, thanks to Colorado Politics and their story here.

There was a GAO review of the process.
When developing its temporary royalty relief policy, BLM did not follow guidance for developing new policy contained in its directives manual, including considering a policy’s savings and costs. BLM’s directives manual provides guidance for developing policies that are short-term in nature and are meant to be provided to BLM employees quickly. Among other things, the directives manual says BLM should consider the effects of any temporary policy, including budget impact, costs, and savings, when developing temporary policies such as the temporary royalty relief policy.BLM officials told us that they did not use the directives manual to develop the agency’s temporary policy for royalty relief because of the limited time that the agency had to develop the policy during the early months of the agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, BLM’s directives manual states that emergency notifications—in this case, the temporary royalty relief policy—should not be used to circumvent the BLM directives system. By evaluating its temporary royalty relief policy, including the extent to which the policy met BLM’s objectives—preventing unrecoverable loss of oil and gas resources and ensuring a fair return to the government—and the likely costs, such as forgone revenues—BLM could better inform its decisions about granting royalty relief in the future under the agency’s regulation authorizing ongoing royalty relief.
Reading the GAO report, I had a great deal of sympathy for the BLM folks faced with implementing these old and unclear regulations, and was not surprised that they were not consistent from state to state. Let’s give our agency folks a break as they deal with Covid and related crises. It’s much more difficult to do things than it is to criticize others who are doing things. Think of writing a book versus a book review. I’m not saying that agency employees are always perfect, but would it hurt to give them the benefit of the doubt?

9 thoughts on “Assuming the Best About Federal Employees and Their Challenges: Why Not?”

  1. I definitely give the benefit of the doubt to career, GS15-and-under staff. Such a challenge to be pushed tooth and nail to do things that go against the normal procedures (let alone break Agency rules and likely laws).

    I do not any benefit of the doubt to the top officials/political appointees.

  2. Having dealt with many a political appointee and SES’er in USFS, no, I would not give them the benefit of a doubt, ever. A more soul-less politically expedient class of people, I have never seen. Fortunately, sans fires of late, nothing they dealt with were matters of national security or health as I dealt with in other agencies, i.e.. DOE, DOD and DOI. So their conniving machinations were usually of little merit other than wasting the taxpayer’s dollar…..

    • Wow! I have known many SES folks (before, during and after their appointments) and liked some more than others, but would call none of them “soulless”. Do you think it’s the kind of person who applies, something that happens in SES training, or the nature of the jobs once they get them? My experience is when say a DRF becomes an RF (SES transition) they are basically the same kind of leader/person they were before.

      • Do you believe you can climb that high on the line officer career ladder (RF or DRF) in the Forest Service without getting good at sensing the political winds and going the way they are blowing? I don’t think taking a principled stand adverse to political bosses is great for careers. At some point in the hierarchy, personal convictions (souls) and “professional judgment” start to succumb to political judgment. (And I doubt if it matters as much how well you “manage people.”)

  3. As one who went from GS-14 to SES as FS Deputy Chief, I have a few thoughts. I recall being first signatory on an FSEEE Roadless petition, after being told “don’t do it”. I recall begging Undersecy Jim Lyons to take his hands off preparation of 2000 NFMA Reg, so that it would enjoy better internal legitimacy. He did. I recall beseeching Chief Dombeck to NOT transfer a bunch of Regional Foresters right before 2000 election. He didn’t. I recall many battles with USDA after Bush was elected (all of which I lost). I could go on, but my point is I tried to remain “a principled professional” with a soul. However, my brief tenure as an SES’er and observations of others (in the FS) leads me to generally conclude that they were pampered, privileged, self-aggrandizing, prone to grousing, CYA behavior, and best at seeing to their own interests. Oh – and kind of politically savvy too, at least in their own estimation.

    • Thanks for your perspective, Jim. My 2000 NFMA story is that I was working at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on regulation of genetically engineered organisms. We were asked to review the 2000 Rule and I raised some questions with regard to how much it would cost, and (coincidentally, who knows?) OMB supposedly started asking questions.

      My real boss, back at the Forest Service, Dr. Bill Sommers, had a story something like Lyons not appreciating my involvement (interference) and talking to him about it, and Bill saying something like “what did you expect?”. Bill didn’t tell me this story until after I had returned to the Forest Service. Which I think goes to the important role of SES and other folks as buffers between lower level employees and the politicals. As an aside, Jim’s role in clearance was perfectly appropriate, even if he had decided not to be directly involved with the development. Mine, somewhat less so, but I was asked to review it (who else at OSTP would have?).

      My experience with SES folks (and perhaps I’ve had more than you, because I spent more time in DC, which is rife with SES folks of all persuasions), including my bosses in R&D and in EMC, is that I’ll say…

      If I respected them and the way they worked before they became SES, I would still respect them after they became SES. And I have seen the reverse as well, if I didn’t respect them before, I would continue to not respect them. Leopards don’t change their spots and all that and I’m not sure leopard observers do either.

  4. All cool. I’d say NFMA would have probably cost plenty but I don’t think our own planning director testifying on the Hill that it would “cost more than going to the Moon” was especially helpful. I sure didn’t clear that testimony; never even saw it beforehand.


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