February 17, 2022
Mr. Charles Sams, Director
National Park Service
1849 C Street NW
Washington, DC 2024
Dear Director Sams:
I am writing on the behalf of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. The Coalition is a non-profit organization composed of more than 2,100 retired, former and current employees of the National Park Service (NPS). We bring over 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting our national parks and apply integrity and credibility in supporting the NPS mission and its employees.
We are grateful and supportive of the level of attention you are giving to addressing issues related to employee morale and to improving diversity in the workforce. It is no coincidence that we identified a “demoralized workforce” and lack of a “diversified workforce” as key concerns in our transition recommendations to the Department in the Coalition’s “This Land is Our Land” document1https://protectnps.org/2021/01/15/this-land-is-our-land-restoring-our-national-parks/. In that report, we also identified several areas of concern related to NPS’s recruitment and hiring processes for both temporary/seasonal and permanent employees. Now in this letter, we are describing additional concerns that impact the NPS’s ability to efficiently hire a diverse workforce needed to meet the agency’s fundamental mission of protecting park resources and providing for visitor services; and concerns related to employee morale that can and should be addressed.
First and foremost, we call your attention to the NPS Voices Summary Report 2https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/21104501/2019-06-06-nps-voices-summary-report.pdf (Report) issued in 2019. The Report is self-explanatory and provides a thorough picture of NPS employee concerns that directly impact morale across the National Park System. Pages 3-5 of the Report identify 27 concern areas, including numerous concerns related to the NPS Human Resources (HR) function. These concerns ring true from our perspective. The Report contains numerous constructive suggestions for “action”; and we strongly encourage you and the NPS leadership team to embrace these suggestions as a “game plan” for addressing many of the contributing factors that adversely impact employee morale.
Many of the concerns about the NPS HR function stated in the Report date back to the consolidation of park-based HR services into centralized Servicing Human Resources Offices (SHROs), as required by the Department several decades ago. Since then, the NPS has had difficulty, sometimes significant difficulty, filling vacant positions due to inadequate funding and the fact that the processing time required to fill vacant positions has greatly increased. In the past NPS was typically able to fill vacant positions in as little as six weeks, but now vacant positions can take six months to a year or longer to fill. This has a direct impact on the Service’s ability to hire, in a timely manner, the staff needed to provide visitor services and programs and operate facilities. As a consequence, especially during busy shoulder seasons when many parks are experiencing surges in visitation, park resources may be less well protected, visitor facilities are operating on reduced hours or not even open, and the visitor experience is being adversely impacted.
We understand that the hiring process has been modified recently to limit the number of applicants who are considered when filling vacancies and the process now includes an “applicant assessment” that is unrelated to the skills required for the position(s). In our view, the assessment adds little value to the recruitment process; and limiting the number of applications accepted is an artificial constraint that could also limit the Service’s ability to recruit well-qualified applicants and diversify its workforce.
Given the record visitation occurring at many NPS parks, NPS must ensure timely recruitment and effective and relevant hiring processes are being employed. We recognize that the capacity of NPS central offices, including the SHRO’s, has also been seriously impacted by staffing shortages and there are far fewer HR employees to support NPS parks, programs, and offices. We are dismayed that, instead of improving efficiency, past attempts to consolidate the personnel function continue to have deleterious effects on the entire system.
While some progress has been made in improving the diversity of the workforce, much more can and should be done. Employee diversity is critical to the effectiveness of the Service. As more parks are added to tell more of America’s story, it is more important than ever that the diversity of America is reflected in park staff and cooperating partners. Equally important, the backgrounds and experiences of park staff must be more diverse to effectively operate, interpret, and manage the variety of parks that the Service is responsible for operating.
The findings of the 2019 Voices Report are consistent with many other sources of information about NPS staffing and morale. In our view, a root cause of declining employee morale has been that the workforce is over worked and under staffed. For example, NPS appropriations in FY 2009 supported 24,444 staff, while the level of NPS staff had fallen to 20,967 in FY 2019 – a loss of 3,477 employees over the past decade. Similarly, a Congressional Research Service report 3https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R42757/35found that overall National Park System visitation increased by 17% between 2011 and 2019; while NPS staffing decreased by 16% during the same period. Coincidently, according to the Partnership for Public Service, in recent years the Park Service has been consistently rated by NPS employees as one of the least favorite (or lowest rated) “places to work” in the Federal government. For example, in 20204https://bestplacestowork.org/rankings/detail/?c=IN10 the NPS was rated 353 out of 411 Federal agencies in terms of employee satisfaction. Unfortunately, morale problems related to insufficient funding and staffing will only get worse as the trend in higher park visitation continues, unless funding and staffing is significantly increased.
The Voices Report also identifies a number of concerns related to inappropriate or abusive interpersonal behavior, such as harassment, as well as other forms of misconduct. We recommend that you take steps to improve employee understanding of, and compliance with, DOI and NPS ethics requirements and standards of behavior, including improving procedures to ensure that objective actions are undertaken when necessary to enforce such rules. Upholding the highest standards of performance and ethical conduct has traditionally been a hallmark of the NPS. As we can attest from the experiences of our members, by far the vast majority of NPS staff adhere to, if not exceed, the code of behavior that applies to all federal employees.
Unfortunately, internal guidance used at DOI and NPS to explain what standards apply to the actions of employees is neither complete nor rigorous; and the options for obtaining timely answers when ethics questions arise are limited. In some cases, this can result in employees making poorly informed choices, which may leave otherwise dedicated employees vulnerable to disciplinary action. It’s clear that the reduction in the number in HR and administrative support staff in central offices is having a predictably serious impact on the Service’s ability to meet its mission as we’ve described above. In effect, past efforts to become “more efficient” by consolidating HR and administrative support offices have been counterproductive.
We are concerned that NPS career employees may have been singled out in the past for investigation or disciplinary action to deflect attention from alleged ethical lapses and improper behavior of DOI political appointees. These situations included several highly publicized investigations by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG)5https://www.doioig.gov/about/about-us into various allegations of misconduct made against otherwise well-respected NPS senior career employees that resulted in disciplinary action, directed reassignments, and/or retirements. At least one case involved a publicized OIG criminal referral to the Department of Justice, which declined prosecution due to insufficient evidence of a criminal offense.
While it is our (the Coalition’s) policy not to get involved in individual personnel matters, the manner in which some of these cases were handled suggests there was an intent to make public examples of the employee(s) involved. Such an approach is neither appropriate nor productive. We believe the NPS must make a strong commitment to ensuring “due process” and a fair review is provided to any employee accused of misconduct. Consistent with this concern, NPS management officials should regularly be reminded that the mission of the OIG6https://www.doioig.gov/about/about-us is “to provide independent oversight and promote excellence, integrity, and accountability within the programs, operations, and management of the Department of the Interior.” And the OIG “follows the guiding principles of its mission to root out and prevent fraud, waste, and mismanagement within DOI.”7Ibid.
Regardless of who conducts the investigation, disciplinary actions should be decided in accordance with established procedures (i.e., by the employee’s supervisory chain-of-command) and consistent with the table of penalties guidelines. Similarly, employees should have the opportunity to respond to the allegations and, if necessary, appeal the proposed disciplinary action to an appropriate review authority.
While outside of the NPS’s and the Department’s control, the problem of fair treatment of government employees was exacerbated during the previous Administration by the widely reported 8https://federalnewsnetwork.com/mike-causey-federal-report/2021/09/the-senate-and-the-mspb-its-a-scandal/ 9https://fcw.com/workforce/2022/01/mspb-passes-five-year-mark-without-quorum/360604/ 10https://federalnewsnetwork.com/workforce-rightsgovernance/2022/01/federal-employee-disputes-sit-in-limbo-as-msbp-nominees-await-confirmation/ breakdown in the functioning of the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB)11https://www.mspb.gov/about/about.htm as an avenue for employees to appeal adverse actions. The MSPB was established in 1978 to provide a safety net for federal employees who might suffer adverse actions within their agencies; and it has jurisdiction over any federal employee who’s faced an unresolved adverse action after 14 days. However, it has been less than effective for the past five years.
In the absence of a functioning MSPB, the NPS or the Department should consider establishing an internal review board of agency officials to consider employee appeals when employees feel they have been targeted or disciplined unfairly. NPS is often the final arbiter of how such matters are handled. We urge that the Director’s Office, whether through the proposed review panel, the existing Ombudsman office, or other means, ensure employees have a full and fair opportunity to be heard; and that, where necessary, actions be taken to ensure a fair resolution of ongoing investigations and claims.
Finally, we recommend that NPS update and reaffirm Director’s Order #93: Conflict Resolution (CORE)12https://www.nps.gov/subjects/policy/upload/DO_93_7-3-2001.pdf and related supporting guidance (Handbook, etc.). Depending upon the circumstances, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) may be a more appropriate approach to resolving interpersonal conflicts that do not warrant disciplinary action or a directed reassignment.
When the institutional measures described above have been implemented, we would expect to see a marked reduction in ethical misconduct concerns and increased employee confidence that they would be treated fairly if/when they break or are perceived to break the rules, particularly in instances in which they have not been adequately trained or informed of the applicable rules or requirements. If you have any questions about these concerns and recommendation or wish to discuss them further, we would be glad to meet with you at your convenience.
In conclusion, the Coalition recognizes the challenges the Department and the NPS face in trying the reverse the downward trend in employee morale. Despite having a workforce that remains strongly dedicated to the Service’s conservation mission, the positive esprit de corps that once distinguished the NPS from many other federal agencies no longer exists and has been replaced by widespread employee frustration and barriers to effective performance. The Department, the National Park Service, and Congress must work together to develop a plan and implementation strategy to return the NPS to its rightful place of being one of the most respected places to work in our federal government. The NPS workforce deserves nothing less.
Michael B. Murray, Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
2 Massachusetts Ave NE, Unit 77436
Washington, DC 20013
Shannon Estenoz, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks
Shawn Benge, Deputy Director, Operations, National Park Service
Lena McDowall, Deputy Director, Management and Administration, National Park Service
Rita Moss, Associate Director, Workforce and Inclusion, National Park Service