The President’s Agenda: Restoring the National Park Service

This President’s Agenda proposal is one that’s close to my heart. The National Park Service (NPS) is an agency celebrated worldwide for the stunning legacy of natural, cultural, and historic wonders it manages. To those of us on the inside, the NPS is also renowned amongst federal agencies for its quality employees, dedication to mission, and commitment to providing quality to the American taxpayer.

Unfortunately, this once proud, mission-accomplishment-oriented agency is now suffering the same debilitating rot inevitable to all bureaucracies. Sclerosis has set in, and failure is its mistress.Burdened under an Atlasean-weight of rules and policies and paperwork requirements, the NPS is no longer able to respond to its most basic mission requirements, and the national parks suffer (although the park employees, who care the most, suffer above all).

The next president’s goal should be to reorient the entire agency with these fundamental reforms: restore the idea of the ranger-generalist; refocus the mission on the resources and users; and free the agency from meddling external bureaucrats. As a former NPS employee, if given the president’s attention, I would endorse the following workplace reforms:

  1. Liberate park personnel to work in a truly multidisciplinary manner. Presently, every federal job, from plumber to park ranger, is defined (or classified, in bureaucratese) by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). OPM sets qualifications, duties, and pay scales for every position in the NPS, and each employee is constrained by these OPM definitions of work load, performance, and pay. Predictably, the classification schema has resulted in a workforce that is rigid, intimidated by workplace rules, and demoralized by the lack of development and personal growth within the job. The tragedy is that the NPS has some of the best people in government. The next president should waive OPM classification rules for NPS employees and allow the agency to use its people as expert-generalists: employees with technical knowledge in one field who also can perform a wide-range of park-related duties. I’ll explain more in point 2.
  2. Part of returning the NPS toward its historic mission is to bring back the naturalist-generalist. Once we called this the generalist-ranger: Today, I think the NPS would best be served by individuals who reflect the diversity of the NPS mission – naturalists, ecologists, historians, outdoor enthusiasts, and so forth. We accomplish this with two reforms: First, end the emphasis on higher-education credentials in the hiring process. There is no need for a park’s “Natural Resources Manager” to hold a degree in biological or earth sciences. That is but one part of the equation. The NPS should consider other skills, interests, and talents as well. Also, the NPS doesn’t do science; the NPS manages resources and users of resources, and a lot of different educational fields could fill this role (recreation management first and foremost). Second, hiring decisions need to look beyond a narrow set of skills. Today the NPS fills a plumbing position with someone who has nothing but plumbing experience to do no more than plumbing work. This is absurd. In the NPS we need to expect more. The NPS should hire someone with plumbing experience who is also a naturalist (or historian or biologist) by background. The basic rule for filling a position should be this: park resource first, park user second, park discipline third.
  3. Make the NPS a truly interdisciplinary agency by allowing employees to work across the narrow confines of their current OPM-dictated job descriptions. The first employee who utters “it’s not in my position description” in response to a request for work should be fired, just to set the tone. Look, resource and recreation user problems are interdisciplinary by nature. If the NPS is to successfully manage these issues, it needs a workforce that can collaborate across disciplines. This needs to happen on a day-to-day basis; it can’t be limited to the occasional interdisciplinary team meeting.
  4. Further, the NPS needs to end the ‘management by division’ organizational structure in the parks. The departmentalization of park employees by divisions – law enforcement, resource management, planning, interpretation, etc. – is not conducive to a holistic approach to resource management. It also leads to the stove-piping of disciplines up the chain of command, where Washington bureaucrats exercise their control.

These first four points are critical for restoring the NPS legacy and mission, and to developing an agency responsible for managing native resources in a new century. Specialization in job disciplines is important, but roles should not be defined and constrained by that specialty. We need park employees who understand park operations from a holistic perspective rather than the narrow parameters of their OPM-classified job description. I could write on this topic all day, but for now will leave it as said and move on with these additional reforms (sorry the numbering starts over at 1).

  1. Free employees to focus on their jobs. The NPS has followed the path of every bureaucracy in history and burdened its employees under an unmovable weight of work rules and paperwork exercises. Atlases they are, with the weight of every bureaucratic whim and fancy piled upon their shoulders. No wonder moral and productivity suffer. Here’s a start: Eliminate absurd employee training requirements (yes, we know not to look up porn on our computers); end data calls and performance reports; simplify or eliminate procedures that require mounds of paperwork; treat employees as adults and stop the belittling safety regulations. There is so much wasted, unproductive use of employee time in federal agencies that it boggles the mind.
  2. Simplify park budgets. This is another “O” agency issue – the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB, like OPM, has way too much influence, and requires way too much of the park service’s attention in all proportion to the value provided. OPM and OMB – these are bureaucracies overlaid upon bureaucracy, with all the accompanying egos, power struggles, inefficiencies and wasted energies inherent in such a flawed arrangement. Parks do not need 140 or 180 or 220 different accounting codes. They do not need to spend 3 months of the year formulating and reconciling budgets. I promise you I know a budget expert in the NPS who could simplify the budget process within a matter of days, and give us a process that is accountable, transparent, simple, and efficient.
  3. For Christ’s sake, can we give our seasonal employees health insurance? Sorry; this is a personal gripe.
  4. Improve supervision to improve employee performance and moral. The NPS has lousy supervisors. I’m sorry, but it’s true. A lot of good people are shoved into lousy supervisor roles. The chief antagonist is tenure: The NPS promotes from within disciplines, usually based on time served, to fill supervisory roles. These time-servers are then given responsibilities over employees, budgets, and operations with exactly zero training in how to be proficient, let alone outstanding, at this job. Okay, they get a week of training a year. But tenure and a week of training do not generally yield the most effective, dependable, and talented supervisors. Supervision is not about the supervisor, as if some reward for sticking it out. Supervision is about the employee first, and the mission second. The NPS has forgotten this along the way.
  5. Along with improved supervision, move toward more interdisciplinary supervisory structures. A park doesn’t need a distinct supervisor for resources, facilities, planning, interpretation, and so on. A general model should see a park with a strong superintendent and a few talented, well-trained supervisors under him/her to manage the entire park staff. The larger the staff, the more general supervisors. The NPS desperately needs to break from the division mentality, where a supervisor from maintenance leads the maintenance employees, and so on. The entire supervisory approach, again, needs to abandon disciplines in exchange for a holistic and interdisciplinary understanding of park operations.
  6. My final point; allow employees to float between federal land management agencies. If a park needs a hydrologist, and the forest next door has a hydrologist, let the park temporarily employee that individual without going through the cumbersome federal hiring process that, these days, may take a year or longer. Only the federal government could make it so difficult for a federal employee to move between federal agencies.

So, dear future president, these are some of my internal reforms to save the park service from the slow, painful, demoralizing death of so many bureaucracies. The NPS is too important – the parks too important – to allow the government to slowly, layer by layer, build another monument to inefficiency in the form of the park service. Simple steps, simple reforms, and we can make the National Park Service a model federal agency for the new century. Frankly, if we can’t save the National Park Service, then it is time to cash it in.

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