Forest Service Chief Balks on Law Enforcement Reforms

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Forest Service Chief Balks on Law Enforcement Reforms

Volcanic All-Hands Meeting Results in Stalling Tactics Not Leadership Change

Washington, DC — Facing a tidal wave of discontent inside its law enforcement program, the Chief of the Forest Service has backed away from any pledge of change, instead proposing yet another work “climate assessment” and a “content analysis” of hundreds of angry messages from a “virtual” all-hands meeting, according to a letter posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Participants confirmed that torrents of email messages “queued” by Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations (LE&I) line staff paralleled the results of a recently released all-employee survey by PEER.

Released three weeks ago, the PEER survey results reflected overwhelming disgust with incompetent leadership, retaliatory actions and inadequate, misdirected resources within LE&I. Citing that survey, the Forest Service Chief called for a web-based “LiveMeeting” on April 11th to which the LE&I management team was not invited so that rank and file employees could “share…discussion and advice about how we can improve the work environment and address leadership concerns.”

While Chief Tidwell’s invitation suggested that he hoped to hear from LE&I staff “whose viewpoints differ from that of PEER,” he and Associate Chief Mary Wagner walked into a fire hose of highly negative reaction, including an estimated 400 email messages. Wagner called the reaction “a cry for help.” Tidwell promised to release a transcript with all the messages and implied that he would act.

In an April 18th memo to LE&I staff, Chief Tidwell wrote that he came away from the meeting with “broad themes” including “Leadership’s relationship and reputation with the workforce.” Rather than act to directly address those concerns, however, he instead would –

  • Obtain a “content analysis” of employee messages by “independent specialists.” Content analysis is a quantitative summary of messages often depicted as a “word cloud” displaying the frequency with which certain terms were used;
  • Conduct a new “work environment climate assessment” although one was conducted just one year prior. In it, LE&I registered the agency’s most negative scores for how it regarded the honesty, competence and motives of its leadership. These scalding results also mirrored a 2011 Forest Service management review which found LE&I to be “a broken system from top to bottom”; and 
  • Would not address the sudden unexplained 15% budget cut that afflicted only LE&I.

By omission, Chief Tidwell’s letter conveyed that replacing his LE &I Director David Ferrell who has become a lightning rod for employee complaints, was not an option under active consideration. In addition, Tidwell indicated he would renege on his promise to “share the chat pod and audio comments.”

“Chief Tidwell is obviously defensive since David Ferrell is his guy and this mess has happened on his watch,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, arguing that Tidwell was engaging in stalling tactics. “Hiring a consultant to construct a word cloud won’t make a leadership decision any easier.”

There were some small bits of potential good news for LE&I staff in that Tidwell stated that he would –

  • “Examine options for filling key positions, ensuring basic patrol and investigation capacity and ensuring adequate travel budget to train and deploy effectively”; 
  • Review restrictions on lateral transfers and overtime pay; and
  • “Immediately be looking at assertions of retaliation” to see “if investigation is needed.”

“The good news is that Chief Tidwell is no longer ignoring his law enforcement staff, the bad news is that now he appears to be patronizing them,” Ruch added, noting that despite his talk of “difficult choices needed” Tidwell had yet to make one. “Having opened Pandora’s Box Chief Tidwell will find that he cannot close it without curing the ills that have been given voice.”


Read the Tidwell memo

View his invitation to the virtual all-hands meeting

Look at PEER LE&I survey results

Compare 2013 Forest Service Employee Viewpoint Survey results

Revisit unexplained LE&I budget cut

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