Keeping Our Eye on the Ball:
The Strategic Role of the Policy Analysis Staff in
Advancing the Conservation Mission of the Forest Service 1
V. Alaric Sample 2
The Pinchot Institute is committed to working with the Forest Service, and with the Policy Analysis staff in particular, to help identify, screen, and prioritize among the agency's emerging issues, and to assist in the analysis of some of these issues where the particular strengths of the Pinchot Institute can be brought to bear. In doing so, we will utilize the talent we have brought together at the Institute, but also tap into the vast reservoir of knowledge and expertise outside our own walls.
We can help develop innovative policy approaches and practical implementation strategies on specific issues. Through this, we hope to assist the agency in addressing some of its higher-order challenges, enabling the Forest Service to once again be recognized as one of the nation's leading conservation organizations.
Making sense of emerging issues: Forest Service leadership in natural resource conservation
In Maitland Sharpe's presentation on ``Emerging Issues'' to the National Leadership Conference in October 1999, he identified ``ten large-scale trends . . . redefining our society and redefining the operating environment of the Forest Service.'' `` The challenge from the Chief,'' Maitland said, ``is to see where trends like these are driving us and develop efficient mechanisms for foresight, issue identification, and strategic response--so we can better anticipate and manage emerging issues. If we do so, less time and energy will be consumed by defense; more time and talent can go into providing leadership in resource management.'' In large part, I would agree with both Maitland's analysis of these major trends, and his conclusions regarding their implications for the Forest Service, but I would suggest the conclusions need to be ordered a little differently.
If we wait until we can better anticipate and manage emerging issues before we devote more time and talent to providing leadership in resource management, then the continuous cascade of new issues will keep us so busy with the former that we will never get to the latter. The Forest Service's clarifying for itself what kind of leadership in resource management it aspires to provide must be the precursor and key to better anticipating and managing emerging issues.
During the past couple of months, I have reviewed at least three different lists of emerging issues generated by three different groups of very knowledgeable people within the Forest Service. They are all somewhat different, and the issues appear in somewhat different priority. And they are long. Even the effort by the Programs & Legislation staff to garner some parting wisdom from former Deputy Chief Ron Stewart by boiling things down to ``The Big Five Issues'' produced a list of 14. None of these lists are right or wrong, neither in the emerging issues identified nor in their rank ordering. They just serve to illustrate the multitude and complexity of pressing issues that have the best minds in the Forest Service turning from one crisis to the next in an effort to respond to each in a timely, credible, and effective way.
And that's part of the problem--the Forest Service always seems to be responding, always reacting. From an outside perspective, there is a sense that the Forest Service has given up its will--or ability-- to lead, that it has withdrawn behind its defensive bulwark to fend off repeated assaults on its intentions, its competence, and its accountability. Thus far the assaults have not been strong enough to entirely overwhelm the defenses, but the impacts on agency morale have resulted in some defenders questioning the motivations of the organization's leaders, which is turn has led to passive resistance to trying anything new or different.
Does this sound like an organization ready to lead conservation into the new century?
Public consensus on the Forest Service mission: what more do we need to hear?
One of the key issues identified by Ron Stewart's group, and echoed in the other lists of emerging issues, is that ``the agency is hampered by the lack of a clear public consensus on our mission.'' Suggestions include sponsoring a forum for broad public discussion of what national forests are for, and for whom they should be managed; another suggestion is for a national forestry conference, like the one convened by Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the century.
Just last year, conservation leaders from both inside and outside the Forest Service participated in a forum on the future of the Forest Service, co-sponsored by the Pinchot Institute and Resources for the Future, and dedicated to Dr. Marion Clawson, author of the 1975 book, Forests For Whom and For What. A book based on the presentations and discussions at this forum is expected soon.
Not long prior to that, the Forest Service was one of the main sponsors of the multimillion-dollar Seventh American Forest Congress, which took place over a period of two years, ultimately involved more than 7,000 citizen participants from all corners of the country and all walks of life, and produced a statement of Vision and Principles for the future of forests and forestry in the United States that is remarkably consistent with the vision of responsible forestry and good land stewardship that has guided the Forest Service for nearly a century.
In response to Ron Stewart's observation regarding the lack of public consensus on the Forest Service mission, I would ask the Forest Service itself (with apologies to Bill Gates), `` Where do YOU want to go today? '' Where is the Forest Service leadership for articulating a vision that reflects the results of broad-based processes like the Seventh American Forest Congress, builds upon this centrist conservation consensus, and demonstrates to the American people that the Forest Service has long been, and could still be, the nation's leading conservation organization?
Emerging issues: the big picture
By nature I tend to be a ``lumper'' rather than a ``splitter '' in that I look for similarities and relationships that can link a multitude of items under a few broad themes. This provides context, and helps me to better understand where everything fits in the ``big picture.'' Psychologists tell us that the average human mind can keep straight no more than about seven different things that relate to one another. Recognizing my own further limitations, I have distilled the items on the various lists of emerging issues down to only four themes or issue areas. These are issues relating to:
Clarifying the Forest Service's ``conservation consensus '' vision and mission of responsible forestry, sensible land stewardship, and protecting resource productivity from damage or degradation
Developing agency leadership--in terms of both a proactive organizational philosophy and the cadre of future line officers-- necessary to carry out this conservation mission
Devising agency policies, administrative structures, processes and tools that work in ways that are consistent with an integrated resource management approach to conservation, rather than working at cross purposes to this and setting the agency up for failure
Improving the agency's ability to turn public issues into opportunities to solidify the public consensus for conservation, and thus advance Forest Service's vision and mission
My hope is that this will set the stage for a productive discussion of how we might prioritize among the multitude of issues currently on your radar screen, develop screening criteria to determine what belongs on your plate and what belongs on someone else's, and what might be the mos effective working relationship between the Forest Service Policy Analysis staff and the Pinchot Institute.
The strategic role of Policy Analysis
Through the years, the Policy Analysis staff in the Washington Office has operated under different conceptual models, depending upon who the director was at the time, and on the level of understanding among the agency's top leaders regarding the purpose of a policy analysis staff and how best to utilize this resource.
Some have seen it as playing a key role in decision support, providing timely, objective options analysis that bridges between the factual results of scientific research and legitimate political considerations of what is possible. Others have seen it as little more than a job-shop, providing quick-and-dirty analysis of the implications of decisions that have for the most part already been made, just to make sure they didn't overlook something big. Still others have not known quite what to make of the Policy Analysis staff and have made little if any use of its resources or its potential.
Having observed a number of iterations on each approach, I've concluded that the Policy Analysis staff is most effective when it plays the role of a `` skunk works'' within the agency--a place where extraordinarily innovative people are brought together in a flexible, creative environment to think in new ways about new kinds of solutions to emerging opportunities and challenges. An internal policy analysis staff in this model is most effective when it regards itself as giving the overall organization the ``edge '' it needs to take the initiative on emerging opportunities and challenges, so that other institutions are responding to its initiatives, not the other way around.
For the Forest Service, this means helping to restore the public perception of the Forest Service as the nation's leading conservation organization in the area of forests and forestry, regaining and then maintaining a leadership role in defining conservation. It means taking into account that the definition of conservation is continuing to evolve over time, and that many other institutions and individuals bring additional knowledge and ideas to this process. The process needs to be broadly inclusive, and reflect changes in both the science and the social values that relate human effects on natural environments.
But this should not be mistaken for ceding the conceptual leadership for defining conservation as it relates to forests and forestry in the United States. The essence of leadership is listening , understanding, articulating a vision of what needs to happen in a way that people can relate to, and then persuading others to that vision such that they take steps within their own spheres of influence to advance policies and practices toward that vision.
When an emerging issue is ``ripe,'' an objective analysis of the facts still has the power to define the agenda to which others will have to respond. An emerging issue is ``ripe'' when it is not so early that potential effects on stakeholders and the policy context cannot be identified and described, but not so late that the door to new information is closed, the stakeholders are entrenched, and the issue has shifted entirely into the political arena. There will always be organized interest groups to the left and to the right of the Forest Service's centrist ``conservation consensus '' vision and mission who will respond--always vigorously, and sometimes venomously. The agency's policy analysis simply has to be thorough and accurate, and anticipate the challenges that will inevitably come.
The power of the centrist Forest Service mission
There is great power in this centrist mission. One of the lessons of the Seventh American Forest Congress is that there is a broad base of support among the American people as a whole (considering the entire bell-shaped normal-distribution curve--not just the portions out beyond two standard deviations at either end) for just the kind of responsible forestry and sensible land stewardship for which the Forest Service has been known for nearly a century. In the Seventh American Forest Congress, key policy objectives from the agendas of both the far-left and far-right interest groups were explicitly considered--and explicitly rejected by an overwhelming majority. Despite appearances, common-sense is alive and well among the American people and if given a chance to support this approach to conservation they will do so.
Americans are also quick to distinguish between promoting a good idea and promoting one's self. The emphasis is on the message, and the message is conservation--the Forest Service is simply the messenger. Giving recognition and support to the work of others, where it is consistent with the Forest Service's conservation vision and mission, takes nothing away from the Forest Service. It only strengthens the public perception of the Forest Service as a leader and patron/facilitator of conservation. This might include policy reinforcement for community-based collaborative stewardship efforts, private-sector and nonprofit land stewardship programs, sustainable forestry certification programs, efforts to inventory and assess forest conditions relative to international criteria and indicators of sustainable forestry, and efforts in other countries to improve forest management and watershed protection.
Forcing the issue: strengthening the conservation consensus
Which brings us back to the question of criteria for screening and prioritizing among the host of emerging issues confronting the Forest Service. Just as important as `` urgency,'' ``importance,'' or ``ripeness, '' is the extent to which the issue can be turned into an opportunity for stimulating broader public debate--the resolution of which is likely to advance the Forest Service conservation vision and mission. By forcing an issue and getting it in front of the broader public, particularly when dealing with extreme proposals, the Forest Service can bring greater clarity to what the public does not want, and thereby create an opportunity for the public to more forcefully articulate what they do expect of the Forest Service in fulfilling its conservation mission.
One of the basic rules of politics is that the public dialogue tends to be dominated by interests at either end of the political spectrum, with little being heard from the majority in between. When issues and the positions advocated by various interests are exposed to the full light of day, and debated in a broad public forum rather than being negotiated behind closed doors, the Forest Service is less likely to get stuck with policies that are significantly out of step with the broader ``conservation consensus, '' and with the Forest Service mission. This is not the same thing as ``playing one interest off another,'' manipulating interest groups so that the outcome is close to something predetermined by the Forest Service--essentially a closed process that still does not have the benefit of broad public debate and creativity.
In an open democratic process the Forest Service can maintain the moral high-ground, evaluating proposed actions in terms of whether they move us closer to--or further away from--widely endorsed goals of forest conservation, sustainable management, and protecting the productivity of the resource. This is useful not only in dealing with the no-brainers, such as ``Should we allow this entire watershed of steep, erodible soils to be logged next year? '', but the heavily value-laden questions like ``Should major portions of the national forests be taken out of public ownership and privatized? ''
Is the issue the Forest Service's problem to solve, or someone else's?
Some seemingly major issues may become essentially irrelevant to the Forest Service's own policymaking process. For example, in the case of recreation use conflicts where it is user preferences at stake, and not resource protection, the Forest Service may want to leave it to someone else to arbitrate the issue, like a community consensus process, Congress, or the courts.
Congress has prohibited the use of motorized vehicles in designated Wilderness; should they do it elsewhere? Unless resource protection or environmental quality are at risk, it may not be the Forest Service's problem. The Forest Service might facilitate the working out of a local consensus where possible, and perhaps even leave it to the parties in the agreement to enforce its terms with their own constituents. In other instances, the Forest Service may simply punt to other public institutions explicitly established to make political choices, or arbitrate disputes.
On any given issue, the Forest Service should look very carefully at whether it really needs to ``have a dog in this fight,'' or can be essentially indifferent to the outcome--as long as it is not inconsistent with the Forest Service's conservation vision and mission. In effect, the Forest Service establishes the boundaries and the rules of the game based on national-level law and policy, and then simply facilitates the process by which the stakeholders negotiate their own solution within that framework.
The power of inclusiveness: how the Pinchot Institute can support the work of the Policy Analysis staff
The Pinchot Institute's activities in forest conservation extend beyond those related to Forest Service activities, and includes many close and productive working relationships with other nonprofit organizations at the national, regional, state, and community levels and a number of private foundations that support the dvancement of sustainable forest management. But since the Pinchot Institute's founding at Grey Towers in 1963, the Forest Service has always been the Pinchot Institute's primary partner, and we hope that our broader relationships throughout the forestry and conservation community can serve as one of the strengths we can bring to our work with Policy Analysis.
The Pinchot Institute is committed to inclusiveness, not just out of a sense of fairness but because we believe there is a tremendous reservoir of knowledge out there--not just opinions, but information--in organizations and individuals of all kinds. We also believe that the best time to engage these sources of additional information is when concepts and ideas are first being shaped, not when decisions are all but written in stone. Tapping into these outside sources of information and ideas is an essential part of the policy analysis process for us. External perspectives play a critical role in all stages of the policy analysis process:
Problem recognition and description
Understanding and describing the disequilibrium that can develop between organizational objectives and societal value--and getting the organization to accept that the problem exists and must be addressed in a timely and honest way
Identifying the the full array of people and organizations affected by the problem, and assessing the effects on them
Homing in on the right problem--avoiding the trap of coming up with the right answer to the wrong question (``type II error '')
Distinguishing between symptoms and the real underlying problem
Utilizing multiple perspectives in problem characterization and description
Formulation of options
Brainstorming, leaving constraints to be applied later on in options analysis
Acknowledging that current policy framework in not flawless or infallible
Incorporating a constituent perspective, which is more likely to focus on results: are means being mistaken for ends? is attention to administrative processes facilitating--or interfering with--the ultimate mission of the organization? is the tail wagging the dog?
Reminding policy analysts that they must deal with values; they can't hide behind the science and pretend that most natural resource issues are not driven largely by value conflicts within society
Helping to prevent an over reliance on quantitative decision-making tools when factors and the relationships among them are, in fact, poorly understood
Characterizing the nature of the decision, and thereby helping determine whether constituents interests need to be consulted individually, as a group--or not at all
Keeping the focus on the organization's mission--and recognizing when the decision is one that is more appropriately made not by the Forest Service, but by other public institutions established explicitly to make political choices or arbitrate public disputes
Helping incorporate constituents directly into implementation strategies, recognizing that communities of place and communities of interest are often eager to help carry out what they helped build
Facilitating external evaluations of the organization's success in addressing the issue, recognizing the value and importance of perspectives from the receiving-end of services, as well as the providing-end
Helping address fundamental--and often difficult--questions whose answers may require the repeal or significant amendment of existing policies: has original problem been solved, or did it morph and slip out from under the policy solution devised for it? is the organization riding a dead horse, and natural internal resistance to change won't let the organization recognize it? are vested constituents riding the same dead horse, even more vigorously?
Understanding reasons for external resistance to changes in policies--uncovering underlying interests rather than getting hung up on what are really only bargaining positions
The Pinchot Institute looks forward to working with the Policy Analysis staff, utilizing the talent we have brought together at the Institute, and tapping into that vast reservoir of knowledge and expertise outside our own walls. We look forward to working with the Forest Service to develop innovative policy approaches and practical implementation strategies on specific issues, from land stewardship contracting to incorporating collaborative stewardship into the next round of national forest planning. And we look forward to helping synthesize and weave together the strategies on emerging issues to assist the Forest Service in addressing its higher-order challenges so that it can once again serve as the nation's leading conservation organization.