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May 18, 2007

Forest Service Decentralization Myths, and a Few 'Transformation' Suggestions

Here are thoughts from a colleague. We begin with the ever-present management conundrum of centralization v. decentralization, and how the Forest Service has worked it into a Catch 22. Then we move to a few suggestions to get out of organizational traps we've fallen into:


The Forest Service is organized as a decentralized agency in order to allow field managers the flexibility to make decisions that are responsive to local conditions and needs;

BUT, the Forest Service maintains a voluminous system of Manuals, Handbooks, Directives, Desk Guides, publications, and direction letters which govern the minutia of virtually every decision a Forest Service officer must make, not to mention the micromanagement of its daily affairs by political appointees;

BUT, in meetings, training, and other communications, the Forest Service reiterates the folklore of decentralization, fostering an institutional culture that believes the Forest Service is a decentralized organization, which leads to disregard of the centralized direction;

BUT, woe to the Forest Service officer who gets caught deviating from the centralized direction under the mistaken belief that the decentralized organization allows the flexibility to make local decisions based on local considerations;

BUT, afterhours and water cooler discussions laud the ingenuity of the Forest Service officer who disregards the centralized directives and regulations in order to get good things done on the ground, contributing to the culture that wants to believe the Forest Service is a decentralized organization;

BUT, if a Forest Service officer makes a decision that the central authorities do not like, the response is to create more centralized direction in an attempt to insure it never happens again;

BUT, if a Forest Service officer fails to make a decision the central authorities want to see made because the officer believes he or she is precluded from doing so by the centralized direction, the officer is reprimanded by the central authorities for failing to be creative in interpreting the central direction;

BUT, the institutions which hold the Forest Service accountable for its actions, the courts, Congress, Office of the Inspector General, and the Government Accountability Office, measure the agency's performance by its adherence to its centralized standards;

BUT, the state congressional delegations which hold great sway with the Forest Service locally decisions impugn those officers who adhere to the centralized direction if doing so does not achieve the results the delegations want;

BUT, when displeased with a decision, the public at large views failure to follow the centralized direction as evidence of agency corruption;

BUT, when pleased with a local decision the public at large couldn't care less about the central direction;

BUT, the central direction nonetheless grows exponentially, along with internal conflicts and inconsistencies, such that keeping up with and deciphering the central direction becomes nearly impossible and it is increasingly ignored or disregarded;

BUT, once created, central direction almost never goes away. Much of it is antiquated, out of date, self contradictory, redundant or simply wrong. Nonetheless, when central direction is updated, it almost always increases in volume, complexity, and indecipherability;

BUT, as volume increases and direction is restated, the potential for internal inconsistency and inconsistencies between laws, regulations, manuals, handbooks, desk guides, instruction letters, and supervisory instructions increases, and the ability to find useful information declines further;

BUT, the intent of this internal direction is to make employees more effective at their jobs;

BUT, the central directives are used by employees in rote decision making exercises rather than true deliberation, and are used in lieu of training and career development that would actually make employees more effective at their job of making decisions that are responsive to local conditions and needs;

BUT, "staff specialists" become so caught up in the rote exercise of following the centralized direction that adhering to the direction becomes the end rather than the means of accomplishing real work;

BUT, the Forest Service is organized as a decentralized agency in order to allow field managers the flexibility to make decisions that are responsive to local conditions and needs.



  1. Admit that the organization is not entirely decentralized. The Forest Service is a government agency (not the Nature Conservancy, Weyerhauser, or the Boy Scouts) which is governed by one set of laws. Since the Constitutional authority over the National Forests resides with Congress, the role of the Forest Service is to "faithfully execute" those laws, on the entire National Forest System.

  2. These laws need to be consistently interpreted and applied by the Forest Service across the country. Since the laws are not comprehensive or without room for interpretation, clear, concise regulations are needed to fill in the gaps and insure that the laws are consistently applied.

  3. Existing regulations are not clear, concise, or succinct.

  4. The existing mechanisms for drafting regulations are not adequate. Drafting good regulatory language is an art form. There should be a small, permanent staff of professionals to draft regulatory language. Since regulations are promulgated by the Secretary, and not the Forest Service, this staff should work for the Under Secretary's office. This is not to suggest that Forest Service technical professionals and OGC should not have input into rule making, but the drafting of rules should be by qualified professionals, not technocrats on detail.

  5. Burn the Directives system. Some very small portions of the system should be made into rules, but the vast majority of the system should go away.

  6. Replace the Directives system with weblogs (i.e. blogs) and wiki systems for assisting employees in doing their work. These systems are evolving, self-correcting information tools that allow technical professionals to share experiences, approaches to problem solving, and to evaluate and critique what others are doing. Instead of the rigid, top-down, cookbook approach to problem solving that is present in the existing directives system, this is a dynamic, evolutionary to help competent professionals do their jobs, and for the agency to monitor how work is being done, and make corrections as needed.

  7. Develop a workforce of competent, independent, thinking, accountable professionals. The current work force is not educated, trained, equipped, organized, or motivated to do the job they are supposed to be doing, which is to administer the National Forest System. While there are some subject matter areas of expertise that are capable of performing components of this overall job, (e.g. fire suppression, timber management, road engineering) the agency as a whole is not equipped to accomplish its overall mission.

  8. Skill sets for accomplishing this mission need to be reevaluated, and there must be a commitment to professional development toward these skill sets. Currently, employees come from a pool of seasonal and temporary employees educated natural resource, engineering, and other applied sciences who stumble their way through years of initiation rites into career paths that are available and convenient. Needed skill sets should be identified and employees brought in on pre-identified career paths based on education, interests and skills, and then cultivated through training and job assignments to do those jobs.

  9. There is nothing in particular that qualifies natural resource and other technical professionals to perform in the Regional Forester, Forest Supervisor, and District Ranger line positions. These jobs primarily require management, diplomacy, and public administration skills that have no correlation to the education and aptitudes of the traditional natural resources professional, but in many ways are antithetical to those technical skills. These line offers function more like governors and mayors over large land areas than natural resource managers. Qualifications for these jobs need to be completely rethought.

  10. Once the agency is reorganized along these lines, employees need to be given freedom to use these tools and skills to make decisions that are responsive to local conditions and needs, bounded by clear statutory and regulatory sideboards. Employees should be accountable for mistakes and unacceptable deviations from these limited standards, but in a way that primarily allows for learning and correction, not discipline and reprimand, except in extreme or repetitive cases.

Posted by Dave on May 18, 2007 at 02:23 PM Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack