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Memo to Mary: Call Julie Elmore
Mary, call Julie. Or have someone on your staff call her to arrange a meeting. It could go a long way toward improving not just morale among the Park Service rank-and-file, but also employee retention.
Julie, you see, spent a good chunk of 2005 and early 2006 surveying and interviewing Park Service employees for her master's project on National Park Service Employee Satisfaction and Employee Retention.
Now, I touched on this project in September 2006. I'm returning to it now because it seems that while Park Service officials in Washington once were very enthused about Julie's work and her findings, that zeal has been lost. I'm hoping you can recapture it, Mary.
After all, it was back in January when, during an interview with The Associated Press, you stated that the Park Service is "much more business savvy than we used to be."
If that's so, then you will certainly want to review Julie's work, particularly the searing comments made by some of the 2,505 employees who replied to her survey and Julie's suggestions for how to improve morale and retention.
That, of course, would be the business savvy thing to do.
True, Julie was not contracted by the Park Service to perform her survey but was a graduate student at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences when she worked on the project.
But still, she worked with employees in the Park Service's Denver Service Center, including the agency's manager of its Recruitment Futures Program, and so the agency supported her efforts and looked forward to her finished product.
In fact, so gung-ho was the agency that Julie last September was invited to attend a Park Service meeting in Sequoia to brief agency leadership on her findings. Her presentation, however, was booted from the agenda when Dirk decided to attend the meeting.
OK, that's understandable. But Julie tells me she did drop off a copy or two of her finished project with the Park Service's Washington headquarters. These days, though, no one seems to know what became of it.
And that's a shame, because while Washington's primary focus these days seems to be focused tightly on the National Park Centennial Initiative, in light of Julie's findings just as much if not more attention should be being paid to the employees.
What I'm hearing is that a growing number of Park Service career employees are bothered that, with all the hoopla over the centennial initiative and "signature projects," there is almost no talk about trying to envision a "new NPS," an agency re-energized and reinvigorated for the next century of service to America.
"It's all about projects, funding, positions and the like. There is no vision, little thinking outside the box," I'm told. "It's going to be a shame if the centennial challenge becomes just another bricks and mortar exercise."
And it certainly seems like that could be the case.
I understand superintendents around the country have been asked by Washington whether they have any projects lined up and nearly ready to go and whether they have any partners willing to participate in funding them. Does that sound like the approach for an initiative proclaimed as national and provocative in approach, or one merely searching for projects that are ready to go?
And, while big parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone have a long list of projects and an equally long list of partners to help fund them, what about the smaller park units, like Arches, Isle Royale and North Cascades?
In getting back to Julie's report, you'd think that if Dirk and Mary have time to retreat to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, for two days of meetings with leadership of the American Recreation Coalition and National Parks Conservation Association to discuss "signature projects" that they'd have time for an hour or so with Julie to discuss her findings, study her report, and read the nearly 1,600 written comments she received.
Some of the comments are quite biting:
* "In my park, I've seen a job created to employ the girlfriend of upper management as well as to move her entire family stateside. ... I watched my former superintendent play solitaire on his office computer for hours as well as to print out reams of paper from the Internet on recipes and ads for buying a boat."
* "We continue to put out large fires but fail to prevent the fires or see the cause."
* "Today's reality is that NPS managers at all levels are forced to concentrate all their energies on 'putting out fires' all day, every day. 'Doing more with less' is no longer an option. If preservation and protection of park lands is still important to the American people, then the case must be made to increase budgets and to hire and retain quality personnel."
* "We need to show pride and recognition to those who do a good job. This motivation goes a long way. We need to build pride again in our mission and our agency. People will see the difference and want to be a part of it. We have to build it from within, person to person, not with a national campaign and button."
* "Quit pulling out leaders and filling with cronies. Hire good people and believe in them. Let them do their work without the fear that they could be removed if a stakeholder isn't happy."
* "I have a short time left before I am eligible for retirement, and cannot wait. I believe in the mission of the National Park Service and it is extremely difficult to watch how that mission has been purposely and effectively corrupted and derogated over the past six years. Ideologues have hired ideologies."
And I pulled that sampling from just the first 20 responses.
No doubt there are chronic complainers in every organization, and the Park Service is no exception. But when you have 12 percent of the agency's workforce willingly choose to participate in the survey, well, that response rate is practically unheard of, and I would venture that it's indicative of the employees' desire to get something off their chests.
As for Julie's recommendations? They take up an entire chapter of her project and range from ways to provide better feedback from managers to employees to defining a tangible career ladder for employees to pursue.
"Under the current NPS structure, supervisors do not have a system in place that holds them accountable for how well they manage their staff, how satisfied staff is with their supervision, and what suggestions the staff might offer for situational improvement," writes Julie.
In some cases, employees receive evaluations via mail, she adds later in the chapter.
"The concept of a park superintendent receiving an evaluation in the mail should be unacceptable. Remote locations may prevent regional management from visiting parks, but evaluations should take place via phone so that an open dialog can take place to question and comment on challenges and strengths," Julie points out. "Evaluations should not only take into consideration budgetary performances, deadlines, and the lack of visitor complaints but employee morale, employee satisfaction, and even employee retention."
What Julie discovered in meeting around the country with Park Service employees and visiting parks is that the increasing influx of volunteers into the Park Service is having a detrimental impact in a variety of fashions.
"This researcher learned about many visitor complaints from interpretive staff nationwide who felt the loss of staff and ranger positions were detrimental to the park experience," she notes. "During the researcher's field trips for this project, it was found that Visitor Center and ranger station desks were frequently staffed by volunteers who, while motivated and conscientious, in many cases lacked the knowledge base to inform visitors with the same level of expertise that a professional ranger offer."
Make sure that volunteer programs and volunteerism allows the service to do extra or additional efforts that complement or enhance the service-wide mission or park specific goals instead of (being) a method to complete basic park operations in a manner that clearly is little more than a cover-up for unfilled service positions, wrote one anonymous survey respondent.
"One interpretive supervisor said returning visitors were always the ones who complained the most when rangers were not staffing the desk, or leading the hikes, or presenting the campfire programs," writes Julie. "She worries that with the loss of so many interpretive positions in her large park (and throughout the service) that her staff was rapidly losing their ability to maneuver to stay within their area of expertise from year-to-year. Fewer positions mean some cannot even lateral, much less move up a career ladder."
In light of the window this report opens on the morale of the Park Service's rank-and-file, as well as on the agency's managerial practices, let's hope someone in the Washington headquarters still has a copy of Julie's report and can get it to Mary. If not, I could always burn a copy of mine.