Beyond the Headlines
It is becoming too common to see news reports of “mismanagement” by federal agencies. It is disheartening because as taxpayers, we expect agencies to be sound stewards of our money. We want them to be as frugal with our money as we have to be with it. So, when I read the headlines that the Wyoming Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) may have mismanaged $14 million in its easement programs I was concerned and wanted to better understand what happened.
I was concerned because I have a strong connection to the NRCS and an affinity for its work. In a past life, I was the staff director of the U.S. Senate subcommittee that had oversight of the agency. Later I managed the agencies interactions with Congress for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and then I had the honor of serving as NRCS Chief. Now, I live, work, fish and hunt in Wyoming and enjoy the bounty of the landowners who work with NRCS to improve my quality of life. It was because of this background that I looked closer at the reports of mismanagement in Wyoming. I wanted to look past the headlines to better understand what actually happened and what was being done to correct it.
NRCS and the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG), the investigatory arm of the USDA, both reviewed Wyoming’s management of its easement programs and found that it had not followed certain agency regulations and policies. The reports attributed these failings to lack of knowledge and what the OIG characterized as a failure of the NRCS to foster a spirit of accountability among its Wyoming employees. Importantly, they found no evidence of fraud or abuse in their investigation. It is also worth noting that there was no indication of waste in the report. Good conservation got on the ground.
Clearly, mistakes had been made in Wyoming. These mistakes were not recent occurrences, and it is possible that more errors may be found. The microscope that Wyoming’s program administration is under will, and should, continue until the agency completes all the corrective actions necessary to prevent future mistakes. That is part of the story that was not reported – corrective actions have been and are being put in place to help ensure policies are followed. In fact, the OIG agreed with the actions the NRCS is implementing.
However, one caution that I offer to NRCS and would like Roundup readers to think about is why the mistakes happened.
Sure, some of the problem is workload. Since the 2002 Farm Bill, the technical side of the agency has not always been able to keep pace with the funding delivered through the Farm Bill. The due diligence, oversight and planning that we expect from NRCS can sometimes take a backseat to new contracts. This does not mean that good conservation is not occurring, but it can lead to a lack of attention to detail in contract administration.
Another cause, and one I saw in this investigation, is an effort to cut through bureaucracy. Regulations and policies are often written to address the lowest common denominator across a very diverse nation. They provide consistency and serve as a check on fraud, waste and abuse. However, to those on the ground they can also seem like nothing more than red tape. It can lead to staff cutting corners in the interest of not delaying projects and impacting landowners. They have good intentions and want to see good projects implemented without being hindered by what can seem to be unnecessarily complex and overly burdensome policies.
I should be clear that I do not excuse the shortcuts and failures to comply with agency policies and regulations. Rules are there for a reason and are important to maintain the accountability in federal programs that taxpayers deserve. Additionally, despite good intentions, the shortcuts the agency made in the interest of helping landowners may end up affecting those landowners and the agencies partners. But, understanding why is important in preventing future problems.
So where do we go from here? We have strong leadership in NRCS Wyoming. They are transparent and open. They did not hide from the reviews and investigations, and they have been working hard with their colleagues to restore confidence in the Wyoming program. They have been fixing past mistakes and are working to improve program administration. They will continue implementing the corrective action plans that address the current mistakes and, hopefully, serve as a check on future problems.
We can expect that good conservation will continue to get on the ground, but things will tighten up, and there will be more “process.” In fact, until NRCS at the national-level and Congress, through the Farm Bill, find ways to reduce bureaucracy and simplify programs, we will see more rules and more paperwork. I am confident, however, that NRCS employees at all levels want to make programs work efficiently and want to see good conservation on the ground. With willing landowners and strong partnerships, NRCS can find a balance that allows conservation to flourish within common-sense policies and procedures.
I left the agency in 2009 with the same admiration for NRCS that I had growing up. It is filled with remarkably dedicated people who want to “help people help the land.” They care deeply about the people in their communities and want to help them succeed. I can think of no better motivation for federal employees to bring about a culture of accountability and effectiveness.