Park Service Director Defends Outsourcing Studies

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, July 25, 2003 (ENS) - Bush administration officials defended a plan to study privatizing some 1,700 positions within the National Park Service at a Senate hearing Thursday, amid growing criticism of the initiative. Park Service Director Fran Mainella told the Senate National Parks Subcommittee that the plan has been widely misunderstood and that concern Park Service employees may have is the result of misinformation.

"It seems like in every article you see that jobs are going to be outsourced or privatized," Mainella said.

The Park Service is engaged in a review process of whether jobs should be outsourced, Mainella said, and has not predetermined whether jobs will ultimately be turned over to the private sector.

"It does not mean that the private sector would ever achieve those positions," she added. "A lot of the concern that employees may have is due to confusion as to what is actually happening here."

The Park Service was originally tasked with studying 1,708 jobs by the end of fiscal year 2003, but Mainella says that figure has been cut in half. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is overseeing the administration's government-wide outsourcing initiative, has agreed to give the Park Service credit for 859 jobs that it has already privatized, Mainella said. Mainella

National Park Service Director Fran Mainella says fears over the administration's competitive outsourcing plan are overblown. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
That move is seen by some as part of the administration's decision to scale back its initial plan to review the feasibility of outsourcing as many as 850,000 federal jobs across the government.

Administration officials had set a goal of opening some 50 percent of that figure to competition from the private sector and asked agencies to put the first 15 percent of these jobs up for competition by the end of September 2003, but the OMB official in charge of the initiative told senators that this is no longer the case.

"That government-wide percentage and those deadlines were not appropriate for every agency and we did not want those percentages to be distracting from what we were really trying to achieve," said Angela Styles, OMB administrator for federal procurement policy.

This does not mean the administration is has lost its enthusiasm for the plan, Styles said.

"While there is a certain comfort level in maintaining the status quo, our taxpayers simply cannot afford - nor should they be asked to support - a system that operates at an unnecessarily high cost because many of its commercial activities are performed by agencies without the benefit of competition," Styles said.

Critics say that while the initiative may have merits in some agencies, it is crushing morale at the Park Service, where employees are guided by a mission statement to protect the national parks.

The threat of competitive outsourcing is a key reason the morale of the Park Service is "the lowest any of us have seen in up to 50 years," testified Bill Wade, former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park who spent three decades with the Park Service.

"What is at risk is reducing a once proud, highly productive workforce in an agency with immense public respect and admiration, into a run-of-the-mill government bureaucracy," said Wade, who appeared before the subcommittee on behalf of the Campaign to Protect America Lands and a Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees.

Wade and other critics of the initiative say there is clearly a role for outsourcing jobs within the national parks - of the 48,000 individuals who work in the parks, only 20,000 are federal employees and the Park Service outsources more than $1 billion annually.

But the administration's plan is "a top-down, quota-driven program [that] is wasting precious operational dollars studying positions that cannot reasonably be outsourced," said Scot McElveen, the chief Park Service ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

McElveen, testifying on behalf of the Association of National Park Rangers and the Association of National Park Maintenance Employees, says the initiative gives no consideration to the Park Service's "mission or to the nature of jobs and work in our national parks." parkservice

Critics of the competitive outsourcing initiative say it undermines the mission driven nature of the Park Service. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
Many Park Service employees are cross trained and regularly assist each other in a variety of ways, McElveen said, and this would be undermined by a influx of private contractors.

But Mainella insists such fears of the current competitive outsourcing initiative are misguided.

"Every organization in society needs to periodically ask if there is a better way to organize itself to accomplish its mission," Mainella told the subcommittee.

The review process is not draining funds from the agency, said Mainella, and estimates that the Park Service will spend up to $5 million to comply with the administration's directive are off base.

"The Park Service has also been criticized for spending many millions of dollars on competitive sourcing - let me set the record straight," Mainella said. "The Park Service has never spent over the $500,000 reprogramming threshold in any given fiscal year since the competitive sourcing initiative began."

Mainella said the department has asked Congress to allow it to redirect $1.1 million of existing funds to support the department's outsourcing studies, which cost some $3,000 per employee.

In response to questions, Mainella told senators that no money designated for maintenance backlog at Mount Rainier National Park will be diverted to fund competitive outsourcing studies and that the park is not currently in the department's competitive outsourcing plan for fiscal year 2003 or 2004.

An internal memo from the department in May to Western park supervisors informed them that their maintenance budgets would be cut by some 30 percent, some of it to pay for outsourcing. Critics honed in on Mount Rainier, where they say 67 positions were scheduled for study - studies that could have taken some $200,000 away from current operations or maintenance. mtrainier

The potential impact of outsourcing plan on the staff at Mt. Rainier National Park has emerged as a major source of criticism for the administration's initiative. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
This cuts to the heart of the concern for many critics, who contend that the Park Service can not afford to divert any of its budget for anything other than core operations and for efforts to cut into its estimated $4.9 billion maintenance backlog.

On average, U.S. national parks are operating with only two-thirds of the needed funding, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, which believes the Park Service needs $600 million more annually to adequately manage the national park system.

The department's operations budget has eroded by 25 percent, says McElveen, while visitation has increased 50 percent and park acreage by 166 percent.

The true costs of the outsourcing study are higher than the figures advanced by the Park Service, McElveen says, because they do not take into account time spent by employees to assist with the studies.

"We can ill-afford such a drain on our human and financial resources," he said. "Not everything can - or should be - measured in dollars and cents."

There is doubt as to whether the Park Service will be allowed to shift money to pay for the studies, as momentum in Congress appears to be growing against the outsourcing studies.

Last week, the House included a provision in the fiscal 2004 funding bill for the Interior Department - and the Forest Service - that halts the outsourcing plan until Congress can determine the costs and implications to national parks.

The Senate has not yet adopted a similar provision, but members of both parties expressed concern about the impact of the initiative on the Park Service.

"There are times and places where competitive outsourcing is a good thing to do," said Subcommittee Chairman Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican. "But we have to recognize the uniqueness and peculiarities of the Park Service."

No one would dispute the importance of a government that is "both cost effective and accountable," added Senator Daniel Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat.

"But I am not yet convinced outsourcing is appropriate for the National Park Service," said Akaka.