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The View from Here: Participation in a bureaucracy

Mike Gangwer Published on 11 September 2014
Thick manuel

Working for a federal agency, like the Department of Agriculture, is immersion and participation in a bureaucracy. We may define bureaucracy as government administration managed by non-elected officials.

For instance, the USDA’s prime mission is to implement the U.S. farm bill. Those of us employed by the USDA, therefore, are unelected and usually hired or appointed in our positions.

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Generally, our business plan is based on our particular position, and our position is a function of completing tasks to reach objectives and accomplish goals. We are individuals all working together toward the goal of implementing the various components of the U.S. farm bill as prescribed by Congress.

Much of our work is teamwork; nearly all of it is hierarchal and command-driven with line and staff. I have been a staff employee my entire career, whereas line officers work in administration, and they manage people.

Often, though, we discover that given our long careers and our experience, some of what we do is so deeply entrenched that change is nearly impossible. The standard operating procedures that help guide us toward implementing policy are lengthy and hugely bureaucratic. These involve a large paper network with the transparency of reporting to taxpayers and accounting of the federal dollars spent.

I am assigned to the Natural Resources Conservation Service as a staff resource conservationist. Our agency, NRCS, is in part responsible for implementing Title 2: Conservation, of the U.S. farm bill. We have various programs like the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) that are funded to help us deliver conservation practices on the landscape.

A portion of our work is developing conservation plans, and we may place comprehensive nutrient management plans here, too. Some of this work is contracted to qualified and certified technical service providers (TSPs).

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Here is my point. There is a balance between those who administer the programs and those who do the actual planning. Not long ago (12 years ago) the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) were the administrators and programming service agency.

However, NRCS took on parts of their role while the ASCS was changed to the Farm Service Agency in 1994. This step was a huge change in direction for NRCS employees. Our employees soon became program administrators, and our agency changed significantly.

I am suggesting that if we (NRCS) go back to being a technical and planning agency instead of program administrators, we and the landowners we serve would be much better off. Many of us feel that the program side of our work diminishes and dilutes our work, especially on the planning side.

Many long-time employees remember the days when once arriving at work, we got behind the wheel of the pickup or car and met our first landowner. We talked about planning and largely did our work with a pencil, paper and a calculator. Now we come into the office and turn on the computer.

Readers of this column know I have often written about the burdensome process by which we do planning these days … heavily influenced by bureaucratic requirements that chew through a lot of time but add little value to the overall conservation plan.

These are based on the contractual requirement to fill out and complete many forms and procedures so we are accountable for our time and the federal money we spend in contracting.

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I have thought about planning and how we actually do planning for my entire career. I began formulating my ideas when the web soil survey became robust enough to support my approach. I have shared these ideas with many colleagues, and every time the answer is the same.

Too much different than our current model and change is difficult. I am not alone. Many federal government employees in all agencies and departments have valuable and insightful ideas worthy of notice … but too often those at the higher level of bureaucracy are resistant to change.

I am not sure if there is truth to the idea that those who do move upward in a career path are those who generally follow the status quo … those who administer programs and follow policy and stay within the boundaries of a scope of work. I think there is something to this. So where do we get innovation and change and improvements?

I suggest only in an environment where employees are able to focus over long periods of time on a single approach, somewhat alone and in solitude, working unencumbered, creating, forming and concretely building a new model.

For me, the two best times of my career as an NRCS employee, other than being deployed overseas, were when I was creative … actually creating something from nothing. Nothing ever came of one of them, and the other is only marginally used, so did NRCS gain by allowing me to think broadly and independently?

I think so, because perhaps at some future time these two approaches will be read by someone, and after some updating or modification, actually implemented.

My model for CNMP development is the same model I have had for well over a decade. In my opinion, it is a valid and worthy model for shifting our CNMP development toward performance-based rather than planning-based.

Or written another way, the CNMP is a robust planning document based on landowner performance, so it is the performance part that drives the planning part. I wrote of this model multiple times in this column, but it is conceptual only. No one at a high enough level has given me the time or item in my business plan to actually develop this model into a working format.

Yet, I have no regrets. I was and am still able to think about certain procedures and methods by which we conduct USDA business. And I am not done. I work in an office with 60 people, all talented in their own disciplines and all following a specific order of march … the standard operating procedures for how business is conducted here in New York.

I am thankful for every one of them. I am an outlier, admittedly. I would dramatically change our order of march if I could. But I cannot. While I am thinking deeply about our planning model, and these are conceptual thoughts, the day may come when someone is interested in them to point that maybe change, some change anyway, happens.

I work in a huge federal bureaucracy, and I am grateful to be a part of it. But I admit to spending a part of my time alone, very alone, forming a different model based upon experience and training, and the insight of working in the field.

I am not aloof here, but I am suggesting that working in bureaucracies in almost every level of government, there are deep thinkers that seek to change how we all do business. May I add here that the solitary effort is not about us but rather changes made so our customers, the landowners of this country, are better served. PD

PHOTO: The standard operating procedures that help guide us toward implementing policy are lengthy and hugely bureaucratic. Photo courtesy of Thinkstock.

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
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