Presidential Management Fellows ProgramPerspectives on the Forest Service PMF Program
Interview with Sally Collins,
Former Associate Chief and current Director of the USDA Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets
Washington, DC - September 19, 2006
In what context have you worked with PMF's?
“For the last 5 or 6 years I have been part of an effort to hire PMF’s in a bigger way.
We noticed that the Washington Office is a place where people come later in their Forest Service careers. We realized that, despite the fact that Washington DC draws in so many young people, we weren’t capturing the skill set and energy level that exists in this town. At the same time we were looking at the demographics of our organization and saw that we don't have many young folks, so we had to begin hiring them for our future.
We started hiring PMF’s, placing them in the budget office and having them work on testimony preparation. Many turned out to be really good and impressed us with the benefits and skills that PMF’s bring.”
What strengths do PMF’s bring to the agency?
“PMF’s bring a very fresh and objective perspective to the work we do, and have excellent analytical skills that we have been able to put to good use.
PMF’s have been especially good at writing quick and thoughtful policy analysis papers, and demonstrating knowledge of computers and how to use the internet.
PMF’s are also bringing in an expanded network of contacts from other agencies and organizations, and introduce us to new things, like the blogosphere.
In addition, they have added vibrancy to the office and we have really enjoyed having the diversity of people around: the personalities, clothing, and everything else that comes with that age group.”
What challenges exist for the continued success of the Forest Service PMF program?
“Hiring young people to work in the WO directly brings challenges. Even if they are working on interesting topics and are very smart, they don't know what they don't know. The organization values field experience with very good reason. It is critical that people understand the context surrounding their decisions and how they impact people on a forest or in a district.
Seventy-five percent of employees in the agency have worked on ranger districts. Field experience is so important in the Forest Service and it doesn’t have to be in National Forest Systems. It’s really about seeing what is important to people on the ground and learning how work gets done. You don’t get that in a three week detail. We need to incorporate more “field” time into the PMF experience.
It's hard for people that have not had field experience to gain acceptance in the Forest Service. You can be viewed as less credibile when you haven't seen and experienced operations on the ground. Both the Chief and I took down grades in our careers. PMF’s, like others, may need to do this in order to collect experiences for future jobs.
Ten to fifteen years ago, when we first began hiring PMF’s, some came with an “attitude”, and that made managers reluctant to hire people from the program. Today we see the contrary – people coming into the PMF program do so with a better understanding of our organization and decentralized roots. And they are anxious to find a positive place in the organization. Every manager I speak to today is simply in awe of the PMF’s working with them.
What skills and attributes does the FS need in its future leaders?
“There are a few categories of skills that we need today and that will carry us into the future.
One is people skills, and in particular, knowing how to pull the best out of other people and work in a team.
We also need leaders with good communication skills, especially the ability to write and speak clearly.
Leaders who are good at managing change are very important for the agency, and will be needed in the future. That means being adaptable, flexible, and open to new ideas.
Finally, we need leaders that can synthesize complex information and distill it into coherent and effective policy recommendations.
We are seeing all these elements in the incoming PMF’s. The writing skills have been exceptional, and we have liked their self confidence with a healthy dose of humility.”