I’ve followed the story of the new administration in Washington, DC, and its initial efforts to recast the public narrative across the bureaucratic board, but most interestingly I have been following a small revolution within the National Park Service and staff upheavals in the areas of diplomacy and intelligence at the national level. And after considering all this for a while I found myself buying a bumper sticker through the altNational Parks Facebook page. Here’s why.
When I was young my ideas were more untethered. Like a puppy that finds itself suddenly out of the crate and onto the unlimited expanse of the kitchen floor my ideas would head out enthusiastically in random directions, occasionally stumbling into a snout-plant and periodically circling back to a lap or the crate entrance to ensure that in this freedom I was not entirely unmoored. I recall bringing myself to a point in my enthusiasm as a young person where a quote (attributed, correctly, to me) in a local free publication caught the eye of my employer, whose arm metaphorically thrust up through the floor from the offices below and yanked me downstairs to remind me that perhaps I didn’t know the complete story, and at the very least my narrative did not conform to that of the organization. I was off-message – in a somewhat large and troubling way.
I survived that reminder to continue to speak freely, if more discreetly, to my leadership, but I find that my ideas still stray out of the yard now and again. I’ve also understand now more clearly that there are many fine reasons why it is a good practice to allow them to sometimes lie quietly in the sun inside the fence before I start looking for a hole in it. The collective intelligence of a large organization is complex. It is not simple to know enough to speak for the whole while being unaware of the ideas of the parts, and any organization depends not only on good leadership to set the direction and speak this intelligence, but also on the freedom of those at the far reaches of the organization to communicate honestly to leadership. This is best done and most effectively done, I have found, internally – person-to-person, a “crucial conversation” as often termed in the organizational development world, respecting the broadening responsibilities of everyone up the chain to the top, and the challenges that come with existing on those lofty levels.
These systems work well when a few simple things are true. There must be respect from above to below, about the work one performs and the knowledge one must have to effectively accomplish even the smallest and most mundane tasks. If this is not true there will be little respect afforded from below to those above. There must be no secrets within the chain of communication. If mysteries exist the novelist in us all fills the vacuum with the story that’s most fun and likely most outrageous. There must be care that people with differing opinions are not marginalized or muzzled, but listened to. Even if the organization does not absorb their narrative, it must be seriously considered and debated at the very least.
The AltNPS movement sprung up in late January when the administration issued an order through the Department of the Interior to stop scientists from speaking of or publishing any material on climate science (one of the key resource management issues in the National Park system today) and shut down all social media outlets in the Parks for a wide variety of content. A number of employees, starting with a small group from Badlands National Park on the vanguard of the Twitter storm (some others in the Twitterverse started calling it Badass National Park), decided to resist and spend their off-duty hours outside the crate on the kitchen floor, off-message, defending the work of the Park Service to perform their mission using the best science, arguing that there was no consensus built about this silencing of park staff, and no respect for the scientists closest to the issue within the organization, and being generally critical of the new administration. This list has since expanded to people purportedly representing staff in Arches, Shenandoah, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Everglades, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks.
Well, I found my own ideas about this scurrying about the floor. Yes, clearly it is the right and perhaps even the responsibility for senior leadership in a large organization to set the public agenda, develop a leadership message and expect the ideas of those within the organization to stay in the crate so as not to confuse those outside the organization. And mostly that has held true at the crux of transitioning administrations throughout our national history. It works (except in this case) because the organizations follow the unwritten rules of internal dynamics – the seniors respect the knowledge and ideas of those at the far reaches of the organization, messaging is distanced from managing and dissent is channeled internally where it is tended and massaged before a decision is made. There are no mysteries – the reason a new narrative exists is clear and clearly passed down the line.
The only thing that is clear in this case is that the message passed down from the new administration is not. Some things are off limits (“national policy” issues like climate change, which to me seems like a scientific issue), and others are not (safety, information, etc.). Little consultation seems to have taken place down the line to staff in the parks before the social media orders were handed down. The scientists whose work has been to try to get ahead of threats to the parks in the future found their work censored without any internal discussion. What is going to happen to this effort to manage the parks in a way “as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” (1916 Organic Act creating the National Park Service) if the very experts we hire to figure out how to do this are not listened to? It’s a mystery and you know what people do when faced with a mystery…
Although my inclination is to let my ideas bask a little in the sun within the fence for a while, I find myself rooting just a little for the AltNPS puppies out there on the kitchen floor. It’s not a model that is sustainable in any organization, but I’m interested to see how this little bit of chaos might change the outcome. In time my hopes are that the level of respect up and down returns and the suddenness of activity at the top of the organization moderates a little so there is less need for rangers to speak on social media on their own time and for diplomats to publicly challenge their new superiors before they are even on the job. We have thousands of outstanding rangers across the political spectrum dedicating their lives to the parks, monuments and historic sites, as well as a knowledgeable and experienced team of international experts in the foreign service. Any wise leader understands that you don’t encourage the dogs to stay in the fence by shooting at them or tying them to a tree. Make sure they feel they are still part of the pack. Respect them and listen before acting and there’ll be a lot less howling.