The Smokey Wire Information Request- FS Accountability Study and a new “What Year Was This?” Quiz

We’ve been discussing Forest Service accountability. Yesterday’s post was about “when things go wrong with serious impacts.” But accountability can also have a more Government Performance and Results Act-ish tone. Like the FS tells Congress it can do things with the budget and doesn’t. I think both those definitions are important, but when we use the word we need to think about the scope and scale of what we mean. In case it’s not obvious, I think the historical perspective is important because we can see what has been tried and worked or not.  Which is what adaptive organizations do, as Chelsea pointed out.  I think it’s hard to be adaptive with seemingly random and shifting political and legal constraints, but perhaps other agencies have been more successful.

I’m looking for a copy of this taskforce report as discussed in this GAO study. I remember that Tom Mills may have been the lead.  Once again, I’ll offer an opportunity to author a post to the winner of the “what year was this GAO report” quiz.

Similarly, the Forest Service has not been successful in achieving the objectives in its forest plans or implementing planned projects. For example, in response to congressional concerns about the Forest Service not being able to deliver what is expected or promised, the Chief, in the fall of 1991, formed a task force of employees from throughout the agency to review the issue of accountability. The task force’s February 1994 report set forth a seven-step process to strengthen accountability. Steps in the process include (1) establishing work agreements that include measures and standards with customer involvement, (2) assessing performance, and (3) communicating results to customers. However, the task force’s recommendations were never implemented. Rather, they were identified as actions that the agency plans to implement over the next decade.

The task force’s recommendations, as well as those in other studies, are intended to address some of the long-standing deficiencies within the Forest Service’s decision-making process that have driven up costs and time and/or driven down the ability to achieve planned objectives. These deficiencies include (1) not adequately monitoring the effects of past management decisions, (2) not maintaining a centralized system of comparable environmental and socioeconomic data, and (3) not adequately involving the public throughout the decision-making process.

Cue this song. Other findings from the same GAO report:

First, the agency has not given adequate attention to improving its decision-making process, including improving its accountability for expenditures and performance. As a result, long-standing deficiencies within its decision-making process that have contributed to increased costs and time and/or the inability to achieve planned objectives have not been corrected.

Second, issues that transcend the agency’s administrative boundaries and jurisdiction have not been adequately addressed. In particular, the Forest Service and other federal agencies have had difficulty reconciling the administrative boundaries of national forests, parks, and other federal land management units with the boundaries of natural systems, such as watersheds and vegetative and animal communities, both in planning and in assessing the cumulative impact of federal and nonfederal activities on the environment.

Third, the requirements of numerous planning and environmental laws, enacted primarily during the 1960s and 1970s, have not been harmonized. As a result, differences among the requirements of different laws and their differing judicial interpretations require some issues to be analyzed or reanalyzed at different stages in the different decision-making processes of the Forest Service and other federal agencies without any clear sequence leading to their timely resolution. Additional differences among the statutory requirements for protecting resources—such as endangered and threatened species, water, air, diverse plant and animal communities, and wilderness—have also sometimes been difficult to reconcile.

However, on the basis of our work to date, we believe that statutory changes to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Forest Service’s decision-making process cannot be identified until agreement is first reached on which uses the agency is to emphasize under its broad multiple-use and sustained-yield mandate and how it is to resolve conflicts or make choices among competing uses on its lands. Disagreement over which uses should receive priority, both inside and outside the agency, has also inhibited the Forest Service in establishing the goals and performance measures needed to ensure its accountability.

8 thoughts on “The Smokey Wire Information Request- FS Accountability Study and a new “What Year Was This?” Quiz”

  1. Is the GAO report you want this one?

    FOREST SERVICE DECISION-MAKING: Greater Clarity Needed on Mission Priorities GAO/T-RCED-97-81

    Also, re accountability, perhaps part of the discussion might include (1) a tendency to conflate NEPA with “the agency decision process” and (2) the value of shifting from a focus on “agency accountability” to “an agency culture of accountability”, with the former being more externally focused and the later more internally focused so as to be externally responsive.

    • Also, NAPA did a report about restoring managerial accountability to the USFS:
      Restoring Managerial Accountability to the U.S. Forest Service. For the United States
      Forest Service. 1999

      I can’t find it online, but have a PDF if you would like it.

  2. Hey Sharon,

    I didn’t guess because that would have been cheating. 😀 But here’s some further info on that task force report, which you may already be aware of.

    >> The full cite is: Individual and Organizational Accountability in the Forest Service: Successful Management of Work Agreements, USDA, Forest Service (Feb. 1994).

    >> I could not find an online copy of this document, but a reference to it appears in this FS report as harvested by Google books:

    If this link works properly, it will direct you to a list of the seven steps.

    Without getting mired in the details, it is always important to bear in mind the publication date of any federal agency report – in this case, as I’m sure you know, there was a lot of … churn, for want of a better word, going on in the FS in the early-mid 90s, and these reports need to be read in that contextual light.

    • Thanks Rich! I was working with both Tom Mills and Terry Tipple at the time, and heard a great deal about the effort from them, but not so much the conclusions. I was wondering how “still true” they are. I was also thinking it might serve some future graduate student who wanted to study accountability in the FS, and to find a copy before all the retirees (or our offspring after we move on..) purge our files.

  3. I guess you are not looking for a content critique, but this conclusion kind of stumped me:
    “Additional differences among the statutory requirements for protecting resources—such as endangered and threatened species, water, air, diverse plant and animal communities, and wilderness—have also sometimes been difficult to reconcile.” I don’t see conflicts among these laws that are implied here. The conflicts that are difficult to reconcile are between each of these laws and the agency’s output production (which is not required by statutes).


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