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National Park Service Continues To Languish In “Best Places To Work” Survey

By Kurt Repanshek – July 15th, 2022

National Park Service employees are not convinced the agency is succeeding with its mission, according to the latest Best Places To Work In The Federal Government rankings.

The Park Service stood 406th out of 427 federal agencies when employees were asked if their agency was accomplishing its mission, a question new to the annual survey. Within the Interior Department, only the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Indian Affairs ranked lower than the Park Service in this category of the survey that has been gauging the sentiments of federal workers since 2003. The Interior Department overall ranked 14th out of 16 agencies when that same question was asked.

National Park Service staff in Washington, D.C., did not respond Thursday when asked for comment on the survey’s results.

Overall, Park Service employees’ responses to the 2021 survey placed the agency 370th out of 432 agencies in terms of “engagement and satisfaction.” That ranking was derived from employee responses to three questions:

  • I recommend my organization as a good place to work.
  • Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?
  • Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your organization?

The Park Service’s score for its workforce’s “engagement and satisfaction” showed a slight drop from 2020, though it was an improvement from the 2013-2019 surveys. Still, there were other troubling scores compiled from questions Park Service employees answered for the survey. Overall, the agency ranked:

  • 390th out of 431 agencies on the question of whether “leadership at all levels of the organization generates motivation and commitment, encourages integrity and manages people fairly, while also promoting the professional development, creativity and empowerment of employees;”
  • 404th out of 432 agencies on the “level of respect employees have for senior leaders, satisfaction with the amount of information provided by management and perceptions about senior leaders’ honesty, integrity and ability to motivate employees;”
  • 408th out of 432 agencies on whether “employees consider their workloads reasonable and feasible, and managers support a balance between work and life;”
  • 386th out of 428 agencies on whether employees “believe they communicate effectively both inside and outside their team organizations, creating a friendly work atmosphere and producing high-quality work products;”
  • 384th out of 428 agencies on whether employees thought they were adequately compensated for their work.

Park Service Director Chuck Sams, during his confirmation hearing last October, acknowledged morale of the agency’s employees was low and that improving it would be his top priority.

At the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, Chair Mike Murray was not surprised by the survey’s findings.

“It is disappointing but not surprising that the National Park Service continues to rate low in employee satisfaction,” he said in an email Thursday. “The agency has been mired in the bottom 10-20% of the rankings for the past 20 years.”

Why morale is so low was explored through a 2017 project, the NPS Voices Tour, which was designed to give NPS leadership a better understanding of employee concerns. The “Tour” evolved from face-to-face and web sessions, along with more than 200 anonymous submissions. Overall, the authors of the report met with or had correspondence from 1,249 Park Service employees.

A key point made in the report was that “[P]erhaps the strongest message that emerged from the Voices Tour was that participants need to see a response to what they have shared. We heard voices from people wearing thin from being asked to perform at a high level in the face of inadequate resources, competing demands, and in some cases, work environments rendered extremely stressful due to interperson behavior.”

Authors of the report also stated that “[E]ven those who found the experience valuable expressed concern about whether any real action would come out of all the effort. Many expressed a sense of futility in participating as ‘NPS keeps bringing people down here to get our opinion and nothing happens.’ They say they have ‘been through enough surveys and trainings’ and now want to see tangible actions.”

Sams was alerted to the contents of the report. Tim Whitehouse, executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, wrote Sams last November after he was concerned to say “the challenge of raising those dashed hopes will fall to you. It is not to late to answer the alarm sounded in the NPS Voices 2018 report.”

“There is definitely an element in recent years of employees feeling overworked and undervalued as many parks have become busier than ever while budgets and staffing have not grown to meet the needs of serving visitors, maintaining facilities, and protecting park resources,” Murray wrote in his email. “My observation has been that the vast majority of NPS employees are incredibly dedicated to the NPS mission of protecting park resources and serving visitors. However, these chronically low rankings sound the alarm that many in the workforce doubt that ‘conserving the well being and satisfaction of its human resources’ is much of a priority for the agency.

“The problem is bigger than any one leader and it will take multiple actions over a sustained period of time for the workforce to gain confidence that the agency is serious about addressing their concerns,” he added.

Phil Francis, the past chair of the Coalition, agreed with Murray’s points.

“I think the people who are there are working hard to achieve our mission,” Francis said during a phone call. “I think people who work for the National Park Service remain dedicated public servants who love the national parks, love serving people, and are really wed to the mission of the service. The problem is we’ve lost over 3,000 jobs. With hundreds of millions of visitors, small staffs, budgets that are not adequate for day-to-day operations, it’s hard to have good morale.”

While the report said the Park Service’s workforce jumped to more than 21,000 employees in 2021 from 12,556 the year before, Francis said the addition of park units in recent years necessitated even more employees.

“It’s still short of the 23- or 24,000 people that once were there, even before the extra parks were added to the system,” he said. “And so, you’re still asking people to do more with less, and then throw in Covid, throw in inadequate housing levels. It’s pretty hard to have good morale.”