Thoughts, Questions and Suggestions on Communications Around FS Keystone Agreements

I’ve been talking to folks about this.. many people are curious as to what’s going on with these agreements.  I want to say straight out that if an agency gets infused with lots of cash, clearly they are not staffed to spend it.  And the idea was to spend it quickly, so Republicans could not claw it back.  Well, I’m a little wary of different ideas of narrowing choices for future legislators, but the FS couldn’t help that.  I appreciate that the Keystone Partners come from a wide array of histories and relationships with various political entities, to avoid seeming like a pass-through for this Admin’s buddies, so I agree with their choices there.  At the same time, I have questions, and many other folks do too and have contacted me.

1. Congress- I don’t have the patience to watch these hearings, though it might be more fun if we could have some kind of chat going on at the same time, making fun of some of the elected representatives (completely unnecessary partisan diatribe, can we get back to the subject, please?).  My observations are that they have been curious about 10 year strategy/BIL/IRA results but not so much about the Keystone Agreements. Maybe someone has been paying attention and there is more information available?

2.  Maybe there is a report on what’s happening with the funding, it seems like with all that funding they should be able to provide regular updates? I know good things are happening, but I haven’t found them to be collected by anyone (yet). In the absence of information, some people are going to think the worst.. why not head that off at the pass?

3. I ran across this job ad for a seed orchard coordinator at Forest Hill Seed Orchard.  Which is a temporary job with no experience required.  Of course, in the old days I remember permanent employees doing that work.  Which made me think  (1) “what about all those hiring requirements that the FS traditionally has?” What about qualifications and series.. and all that, and diversity and so on.  Again, I’m not blaming the FS for working through partners, but I think at some point maybe this is telling us that the regular system is too broken to do what needs to be done to get qualified candidates on board for temporary and permanent hires.  I believe that they probably have to follow OSHA and other rules, perhaps same as contractors, but maybe not.

(2) having permanent people do things like reforestation and seed orchard management meant that there was year to year learning, with knowledge accumulated by human beings, and them adding value and knowledge about the work and how best to do it successfully.

I hope the Forest Service has worked through which skills and knowledge are most important to improve when they decide which jobs to give to partners.  It seems to me that for reforestation at least, there is a scale-up factor and a base level knowledge that should be continued by permanent employees.

4.  Some thoughts about grants.  The theory of federal grants seems to be “we give money to people whom we trust to do the work and don’t guide them and check on them very much.. because we trust them to do the work.” At least that’s been my experience.  When it works it works.. when it doesn’t work, there isn’t much recourse.  That’s why I think it’s good to pick the organizations that were picked.  At the same time, especially if you are experienced with various silvicultural contracts and results, it might make you wonder  “why contract anything? It’s a lot more work to have CORs and inspectors than to just give the money to trusted NGOs.” But if you recall one of the least popular FS efforts to do continuous improvement, you might remember that contractors sometimes were more successful than force account (government employees) at reforestation apparently because their work was formally checked on.   So perhaps the Keystone folks will be doing the same kind of oversight to their subs, but we don’t know.  Then there’s the concept of the “lowest bidder”; when and why is it important sometimes and not others?  Now it is for feeding firefighters (last I heard) but now not, say, cone collection.  Will we even know the costs at the end of this experiment (to be compared to contracting the same work, for example)? And how much will go to various forms of overhead?

5. For whatever reason, the FS does not appear to have been sharing much about all this, and my entreaties and those of others seem not have had an effect. Still there is no reason that the Keystoners themselves couldn’t get together and report in similar formats.  From the folks I’ve spoken with about their curiosity, it’s fairly simple.  It could be updated continuously or published quarterly.

Of the federal funds in these agreements, what has been spent? On what? For what purpose or project?  Who else contributed how much (other FS $ other partners)? What are the outcomes or outputs of the effort? When is the target date for completion, or has the project been completed?

Every Keystone grantee obviously keeps track of all this.. so conceivably it wouldn’t be hard to figure out a reporting format and report.

6.  I think that the Keystone Agreements are a great experiment in how federal agencies can move more quickly to address emerging issues via partners.  Hopefully the FS is laying the groundwork now for a formal set of lessons learned that could be presented to Congress, OMB and others,  for reforms to federal hiring, contracting and grants and agreements procedures.  Maybe that’s pie in the sky, but it seems to me we would all want Good Government at the end of the day, with some efficiency and effectiveness as best we know how.

What thoughts, questions and suggestions do you have?

7 thoughts on “Thoughts, Questions and Suggestions on Communications Around FS Keystone Agreements”

  1. Sharon, you ask some excellent questions. When I watched the recent Senate hearing with Chief Moore, there was a lot of focus on volume sold, acres treated and what about all of the money that the FS was appropriated? The Senators were pointing to the numbers and the Chief could not really show that there was a significant accomplishment increase from the funding. The underlying message was that the Senators didn’t care how the FS increases the numbers, just get it done.

    The Chief brought up an interesting point, asking if the right metrics are being used. Are acres treated and volume sold a good assessment of how the wildfire crisis is being addressed? I thought it was a good point. If you think about it, is volume sold a good metric? Region 8 is always a top contributor in volume sold and acres treated but it is that where the bulk of the wildfire issues reside? I think we all realize that an acre treated in the middle of nowhere is not equal to a WUI acre. Barrasso blew up at this idea, suggesting that the FS can’t get stuff done and now they want to change the metrics.

    Contracting is a tried-and-true method for getting work done. It is an excellent way to get the best value to the government and to hold people accountable. It seems to me that with these agreements, there is a lack of accountability. The Chief found a way to get rid of the 10% or even 5% match. There is no match with these Keystone Agreements and they essentially have no skin in the game. Is the good old boy system alive and well? I like these folks so let’s get an agreement with them and give them a ton of money.

    For those of us who have been around for a long time, we can remember the FS airtanker scandal in the 80’s. The FS was getting used C-130’s from the military and then found a way to give them to contractors. Seemed like a good idea to someone at the time. Turns out it wasn’t and as I recall, some people got convicted on that deal.

    I think these Keystone Agreements need some real daylight and there doesn’t appear to be any scrutiny. Certainly not from our politicians. Their attitude is just get it done, we don’t care how you do it.

  2. I agree Dave, it does not build trust necessarily to change metric horses in the middle of a large cash funding stream; at the same time we all know that the current metrics are flawed. I just wonder why it isn’t possible for some joint D and R trusted process to come up with some new metrics that could be tracked? It can’t be that difficult; there are only so many possibilities.

    • In terms of metrics, I think they are referring to new/better metrics as outcomes (infrastructure with reduced risk, water sources protected, etc.) instead of outputs (acres and cubic feet). Both are needed, but outputs don’t really show if you are meeting your objectives or not. So it’s not really a switch mid-stream, but adding additional metrics that show more specifically what is being done.

      • A. I agree with the idea of running them in tandem. If I were to place myself in the skeptical Congressional mode though, what I’d like to hear is
        1. Of course we’re going to do both!!! Of course we’ll continue with the ones you like.
        2. At the same time, we want to develop outcome based measures.
        Of course, we all know that “reduced risk” is somewhat in the eye of the beholder (as a matter of fact, I think I remember RVCC saying something like the outcomes need to be decided by community groups?). So there should be lots of debate and discussion prior to having some kind of meaningful outcomes that can be aggregrated…
        Meanwhile the skeptical Congressperson might ask “would you please stop deciding how to calculate things and focus on actually doing things?”
        To my mind the bias for calculation over action is not unique to the FS, so there’s that.

      • “outputs don’t really show if you are meeting your objectives or not”

        That depends on what your objectives are – some are clearly outputs, both in forest plans and in the appropriations process. Maybe we need a more honest discussion about how the priorities for outcomes compare to the priorities for outputs.

  3. Obviously, Congress ignores many issues regarding getting projects done. Hiring more firefighters doesn’t get timber projects done faster, in most cases, especially in the west. Plus, many Republicans believe in the conspiracy theories that their voters also believe in. They ignore the experts, while blaming environmentalists in fantasy situations. Just because salvage projects were always litigated, that does not mean that all thinning projects were also litigated. Some people claim that ‘the environmentalists have shut down all logging since the 80s’. That simply isn’t true.

    Projects need more of many kinds of specialized employees to get projects to the finish line. Congress doesn’t know, and doesn’t seem to care that the USFS needs more ‘Ologists’, more Foresters and more timber staff. Firefighters often aren’t qualified to do such work.

    I insist that Congress didn’t understand what it would take to complete more fire-related projects. I also think that the USFS did a poor job of educating Congress about what they needed, to do more projects.

  4. Sharon: The theory of federal grants seems to be “we give money to people whom we trust to do the work and don’t guide them and check on them very much.. because we trust them to do the work.”

    If the Forest Service builds this, I wonder how they’ll like it when what an administration wants to do is replace federal workers with political cronies.


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