Park Service Mired in Reform Malaise
Rising Attrition, Growing Dissatisfaction, and Glacial Leadership Response
Washington, DC — The National Park Service is beset by falling morale, rising attrition, and a leadership cadre that moves at a glacial pace, according to agency documents obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite years of dismal employee survey results and a new disquieting “Work Environment Risk Report,” NPS leadership has yet “to develop assessment tools to evaluate the health of NPS work environment,” let alone take any concrete actions, per an internal planning memo.
In the latest Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), national parks ranked 371 out of 432 government agencies in 2022 (in the bottom 15 percentile) and 396th when it came to “the level of respect employees have for senior leaders.” NPS scored below the Department of Interior and Government-wide averages for all measured indices, with little more than half (56%) of workers reporting “global satisfaction” with their workplace, below that of any Interior agency.
An August 25, 2023, “Work Environment Risk Factors” memo highlighted slight improvement in some survey results but cited some ominous slippage on already poor results. Compared to the previous year’s survey, Fewer employees rated NPS “as a good place to work” (down 6%), being satisfied with their job (down 1.8%), or “satisfied” with the organization (down 2.1%). Drilling down further, the report identified as risk factors –
- Rising Attrition. In 2022, NPS experienced a 28% rate of attrition, up from 17% in 2018. Meanwhile, the overall NPS workforce has remained stagnant despite rising visitation and other workload measures, adding to low work/balance survey results;
- Unaddressed Harassment. A steady flow of harassment complaints, but less than 9% of such complaints “concluded with a finding of harassment,” a plunge by more than half from the prior year; and
- Culture of Retaliation. In what was billed “as one of the top five positive shifts,” fully 37% of respondents reported that they feared reprisal if they reported a suspected violation of law or policy.
“In steering its increasingly strained workforce, the Park Service is failing to address issues of low morale and workplace harassment,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, who wrote to NPS Director Chuck Sams back in 2021 warning about the dangers of continued inaction after PEER revealed the agency had shelved its extensive Voices 2018 employee outreach effort. “National parks should be among the best places to work in government, not one of the worst.”
This year, Director Chuck Sams announced a new “vision for improving our culture and work environment” titled RISE for “Respectful, Inclusive, Safe, and Engaged.” This was accompanied by a 24-page “RISE Vision Action Plan” with a numbing laundry list of bureaucratic “objectives,” “actions,” and “milestones.” However, the status for most of these items is described as “Not Started,” with no timeline for either initiation or completion.
For example, the draft Work Environment Risk Report issued in late August but still under review describes itself as “a component of the RISE Vision Action Plan. Objective 2 of the Assessment and Measurement section of the Plan is to develop assessment tools to evaluate the health of NPS work environment” by January 2024.
“While more assessment tools to measure workplace work culture may provide some useful information, what the park service really needs is bold leadership that is willing to take immediate steps to improve working conditions,” added Whitehouse, noting that The Rise Vision Action Plan states that its genesis was in Fall 2021 “to address employee feedback on work environment and culture and lack of progress.” With the number of employees that are fleeing the agency, few Park Service employees will still be around when RISE finally emerges from the planning stage.”