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DFW management missing point of survey showing staff believes agency is being taken in the wrong dir


A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a story about an in-house survey of Department of Fish and Wildlife staff that pointed out a strong majority (nearly 60 percent) of those state employees think management is taking the agency in the wrong direction.

After reading the raw data, I had a long conversation with Chuck Bonham, the DFW director, who is responsible for the direction the agency has taken the past few years. In mulling over our conversation, discussions I’ve had with a number of DFW staff familiar with the survey results, and looking repeatedly at the data, there are some conclusions I’ve made.

Bonham ultimately didn’t seem interested in what direction staff thought the agency should be taking. The mis-directions perceived by the professional scientists and field-level game wardens, the people who have their boots in the day-to-day efforts of the agency, didn’t seem to be of much interest – although he did say he wanted to follow-up efforts to find out more and wanted to “focus on the troubling.” But the more he spoke, the more it was clear that he thought it was a failure of communication on management’s part: They weren’t explaining to staff their superior vision on how things should be going.

Bonham spoke about how accessible he was to staff to hear their concerns, traveling to the regions to have “close to 100 staff town halls,” always inviting comments, trying to keep his door always open. I was feeling what a lot of his staff feels: Bonham isn’t accessible, even when sitting across the table from you. He’s so steeped in the political world and jargon that he uses words like “nexus” in casual sentences. It makes your head hurt. If you take notes, you feel like you are translating from Chinese to English, and that something is missing in the translation. You don’t feel like any of your suggestions and ideas are falling on ears that are listening. Bonham and his associates in the Governor’s office are the smartest people in the room: What could you possibly know about what direction the agency should take?

If that is how your staff and the people you deal with outside the agency feel about management, the failure is rooted beyond management’s comprehension. When you don’t listen to the ideas and suggestions of your professional staff, you are a management failure.

There is no question that the DFW has changed dramatically over the past 20 years with more and more responsibilities heaped on them by the legislature and the changing landscape of environmental law. The DFW has 22 lawyers on staff today. In 1975, they had one guy from the attorney general’s office they could use when they needed help. The field staffers I spoke with admit they might not comprehend what it takes to balance those new concerns, but they don’t have to see every new tree to understand the forest. They all understand the DFW has abandoned its basic scientific and public mission.

One environmental scientist told me about a survey done by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) in the 1990s. Even at that time, the number one complaint from the rank and file members of state and federal wildlife and resource agencies was the failure of their organizations to comply with laws, policies, and biological practices.

“They just don’t let us do our jobs,” said one DFW employee.

That is a stinging indictment. It means the DFW isn’t doing its job. So, of course, the agency is going in the wrong direction: It is directionless. Everything is a fire. In the past, there were a series of single fires; a campground with dozens of managed fires and support from everyone else if one flared up. Today, it has become a wind-pushed series of wildfires, out of control. This DFW doesn’t understand fire suppression or cooperation. There is no management because they don’t understand the basic mission of the agency. They have a shiny, new mission statement that is contradictory, confusing, and ignored.

There’s no question Bonham is sincere in his concerns about the state’s resources, and he loves working for the DFW, just like all of the other employees, but he’s missing the many points of the survey data. He was impressed with the idea that so many (70 percent) of his staff “took time from their busy schedules” to do the survey.

For the rest of us, that alone was a red flag. These are people who universally love their jobs, and it seems incredible that more than 30 percent of the DFW staff didn’t even take the few minutes it would take to complete the survey. They love their job, but they value leadership so little (because all they’ve seen from leadership is failure?), they think doing the survey was a waste of time. Then another 60 percent of those who did the survey bashed upper management for failing to understand the basic mission and helping staff accomplish that mission.

Staff doesn’t trust management. They want to. The staff all believe their jobs are important and rewarding (find that in other government agencies), but they see management as the road block to letting them accomplish their mission. They aren’t trying to tell management how to run the agency, they just want it to follow the laws, regulations, and science. Simply, they want the politics out of the DFW.

Unfortunately, Bonham (and the Governor’s wonky staff that surrounds him) see critical comments as political or personal rather than constructive, serious concerns.

Rank and file staff is betrayed when science doesn’t drive decisions made by the DFW, or when the information isn’t forwarded to the decision-makers outside the DFW for political reasons. (How can the politicians even attempt to make informed decisions if you withhold the best science available?) Rank and file staffers are betrayed when they are tasked with jobs but then not given the time or resources to accomplish the job. Rank and file staff is betrayed (and silently outraged) when incompetence, lack of accountability, and even corruption are allowed to affect public resources. They know that ultimately it is the public who is betrayed the most.

Bonham and his upper staff clearly don’t see the basic problems. Oh, there will be more surveys, and the data will be mined deeply to get even more information they won’t understand. This management staff doesn’t understand the difference between listening and hearing, between hearing and comprehending, between knowing you have all the answers and not even understanding the questions.

The bottom line: Get the politics out of the DFW and return the science and accountability. Let the politicians do what they do, but don’t turn a science-driven agency into a puppet for political agendas.


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