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October 31, 2007

NEPA is Not the Problem

For years the Forest Service has complained about "process gridlock", "analysis paralysis", which it claims bog the agency down by slowing project implementation to a crawl and diverting dwindling agency funds. The finger of blame is often pointed at the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and its procedural requirements for analysis and documentation. Most recently, in the Forest Service has announced preliminary plans it claims will trim about $90 million from its annual costs for "NEPA process".

WAIT A MINUTE! Is "NEPA" really the problem causing paralysis and gridlock? Isn't there more to decision making than just the analysis of potential environmental effects of a proposed action required by NEPA? Isn't there an array of laws, regulations, directives, policies, and other factors that impose process rquirements, and costs, for decision making by a government agency? Is the issue being looked at too narrowly by focusing only on NEPA, or is NEPA mistakenly being blamed for the broad spectrum of legal and other requirements for agency decision making?

The recent A-76–related NEPA "Feasibility Study" (internal, not available for public review) (Jan 14 Update: Feasibility Study now daylighted here: [PDF]) notes:

… The term "NEPA process" is commonly used … to refer to suite of activities including project identification, information gathering, environmental analysis, compliance with substantive environmental laws, and responding to administrative and legal challenges. In many cases, [the NEPA process] is viewed as the agency decision-making process. (emphasis added)

So which is it? Are we talking about the analysis of potential environmental effects of a proposed action as required by NEPA, or are we talking about the entire administrative process the Forest Service uses to make proposals and decisions for actions, including the process requirements of other laws and regulations, and the political, social, budgetary, and other considerations that drive decisions to act?

What will it take to get the agency to think about the distinctions between procedures required by NEPA and the process of making decisions regarding management of the National Forests?

If form indeed follows function, isn't it imperative to thoroughly think through what the agency does before trying to create an organization to do it? Most certainly, the Forest Service does more than "NEPA". However, its "NEPA" Feasibility Study appears at times to encompass not just NEPA, but administrative decision making.

A similar fuzzing of lines occurs in the Forest Service’s 1900-1 course, which while being billed as "NEPA" training, seems to encompass many of the broader aspects of administrative decision making. The curriculum for this course is being revisited, and it would seem equally important to clarify whether this is a "NEPA" course or an "administrative decision making" course. If it is the former, then where do Forest Service employees receive formal instruction in decision making? If it is the latter, by focusing on NEPA does it do justice to the other aspects of administrative decision making?

Just below is a graphic representation of the many legal and other influences on administrative decision making. While there is some overlap with NEPA, there are aspects of each that fall partially, and sometimes entirely, outside of NEPA. Together, these make up the minimum components for any Forest Service decision to take action. Where are these elements of decision making addressed in any discussion of organization or training designed to alleviate process gridlock?

Where Key acronyms (With Wikipedia hyperlinks) are:

Note: We recognize that both the chart and list above exclude some important laws that need to be fleshed out in training and education. Note further that dates associated with laws are just the beginning dates for laws that have since been amended.
Isn't it time to starting thinking more explicitly about "function" — the elements of decision making — before charging off after organizational "form" and related training needs? Training is indeed important, but if the Forest Service never questions fundamentals of process, efforts to restructure/revamp training are likely to be the stuff of "rearranging deck chairs…" rather than much-needed re-framing.

For further consideration, here is a link to a PowerPoint that fleshes out some preliminary thoughts as to how the Forest Service might better organize its thinking/training/process to help employees deal with the broad task of decision making, rather the focusing in on what is but one element of the "Decision Process".

Posted by Dave on October 31, 2007 at 02:39 PM Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

October 10, 2007

SOURCED! - NEPA Next in Line

Following recent trends in the rest of the US Government, the Forest Service continues with wave after wave of outsourcing (or in-house "clustering") accompanied by downsizing. Feeling frustrated and helpless to right what I think wrong, I refer to those affected as having been SOURCED! or CLUSTERED! Hence the title for this post.

Back in 1995 I remember Luna Leopold telling Forest Service managers that they were presiding over the destruction of America's public forests. Today it seems that Forest Service managers are presiding over the destruction of the Forest Service itself. Maybe I'm an incurable cynic — maybe? — but it seems like we are in a crises breeder-reactor. As crises deepen, increasingly no one wants to talk about it.

The Forest Service's recently accelerated downsizing began with Information Technology and Contracting, then spread to Personnel (which now carries the title "Human Capital" following a brief moment when employees were equally demeaned by the label "Human Resources"). Right now the downsizing wave is threatening a domain that the Forest Service calls NEPA: the process for compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Never mind that NEPA can't quite be envisioned to be a staff function. Never mind that the responsibilities and requirements of the NEPA Act seem to many to be nothing if not "inherently governmental" — therefore not something to be SOURCED!

It gets worse: One way the Forest Service circumvents Competitive Sourcing mandates, that stem from OMB circular A-76, is by re-labeling the "sourcing" outside A-76 as "Business Process Re-engineering". The results are too often similar, resulting in clustered service centers and fewer employees.

In the "Age of Information", with emergent mass-communication networks, no one disagrees that in there ought to be some shifting from clerical worker' help to self-help. Still, bureaucratic managers seem too focused on "clustered service centers" and not enough focused on the real needs of real people both now and in the future. No one seems willing to talk through, "what work?" and "What is work?" for the 21st century. No one seems willing to talk through "Who needs to do whatever it is that is 'work'?"

The NEPA study, formally the "Feasibility Study of Activities Related to … NEPA Compliance Final Report", August 10, 2007 seems to miss the mark on every front. It is the stuff of questionnaires anchored in the air, "data calls" that mask the emptiness of the inquiry, then volumes of data fed back to NEPA practitioners as if to mask the emptiness. Someday soon, maybe we'll be able to daylight the study. Until then, I'll leave my damning 'take' of the study as one opinion—an opinion that seems to be shared by many who are voicing similar concerns internally.

A few specific problems with the "Feasibility Study":

  • Failure to recognize the relationship between NEPA compliance and administrative decision making under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) Wikipedia: APA
  • Failure to demonstrate that NEPA compliance practices and responsibilities are not "inherently governmental"
  • Failure to fully evaluate both sides of the "contract it out" v. "working-it-inside" puzzle, thereby biasing results in favor of "contract it out":
    • Failure to fully evaluate time spent administering contracts in complex, nuanced, and ever-changing decision and analysis contexts
    • Failure to fully evaluate the costs of "farming out" responsibilities and tasks that are inherently tied to "public trust" issues that requires relationships to be built and maintained.
A few references related to A-76 and/or the NEPA "Feasibility Study":
  • Internal Organization and External Contracting for the NEPA Process: Lessons from the New Institutional Economics and Strategic Organizational Design [PDF], Kenneth Richards et al., September 20, 2007
  • Testimony on "Defining 'Inherently governmental' work, and problems arising from agencies being forced to try to 'blend' contractor and federal workforces", [PDF], Jacqueline Simon, American Federation of Gov. Employees AFL-CIO, December 19, 2005
When, if ever, will the Forest Service begin serious inquiry into how it ought to function in the 21st Century? It certainly hasn't done so to this point, and if the recent foray into "Transformation" is any guide, the agency is not about to engage in serious organizational inquiry any time soon.

{Updated: 10/11/07}

Posted by Dave on October 10, 2007 at 10:22 AM Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack