By Phillip A. Olaleye
Phillip Olaleye, a second-year MPP student, opines on the damage inflicted by political impasse in Washington through the angle of the close-down of the National Park Service. He argues: Employees in National Park Service are NOT “non-essential,” and strength and foresight are required to avoid making the same mistake again!
“Finally! About time those folks got their acts together!” This cheer, along with many others, was drawn when, after a disruptive 16-day shutdown, Congress finally decided to pass a spending bill to fund the federal government. Sixteen long days passed in which fundamental agencies, like the National Park Service, were ground to a halt – robbing many Americans of beautiful acts of nature such as a sunrise or sunset against some of our country’s natural and historic treasures. Although most government workers remained employed, 800,000 government employees sat at home, furloughed, deemed “non-essential”. Recent colleagues of mine, an entire office to be exact, fell into this unfortunate category – individuals who were anything but dispensable as spirited, untiring public servants.
Last spring, I was brought on as a summer consultant in the Business Plan Initiative (BPI) program managed by the National Park Service. Every summer, BPI taps fourteen graduate students studying business, public policy, and environmental management, who are then paired up and deployed to a park unit. Our task? Building strategic business plans and forward looking operational blueprints for parks, in a system facing challenging fiscal climates that impact the long-term health of vital American resources. My co-consultant and I were assigned to the Chesapeake Bay Office in Annapolis, MD, a lean unit of twenty-three employees in charge of overseeing two National Historic Trails (Captain John Smith & Star-Spangled Banner), and the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network – a massive undertaking considering the 64,000 square mile watershed and hundreds of stakeholders it contains.
While I got an up close and personal take on the financials and operational structure of the office, I also got to know the amazing people who kept this massive ship afloat. I met employees, old and new, who were threaded together by this emotive intersection of personal conviction and selflessness. These interplays manifest incredibly difficult, but worthwhile work, including conserving important landscapes and resources, engaging youth and non-traditional users in place-based education, improving recreational opportunities, promoting environmental stewardship, and interpreting natural, cultural, and historical values. To the dismay of a former trader, these folks logged unconscionable hours, collaborating with hundreds of partners such as museum curators, youth conservation corps managers, recreational outfitters, and nature conservancies. Non-essential? One would be hard pressed to refute their value add and provision of a range of social goods touching myriad of Americans.
Alas, my old colleagues had no luxury to wait-it-out and shirk their responsibilities. As much as Park Service employees love their jobs, they still have bills to pay and mouths to feed. Imagine how insulting it must be to pour your heart and soul into your work, for country, and have it be looked upon as so trivial that it can be shelved for an indeterminate amount of time. When I tried to reach out to one of my close office mates via email I received this away message: “Because of the government shutdown I have been furloughed effective October 1, 2013. I cannot check messages until the government re-opens.” When I was able to finally reach him, he had this to add: “Tuesday came and it was like ‘this is no longer a drill, people’. Surreal man. We had 4 hours to change our voicemails, set up our out-of-office email responses and secure our workplace. We were told that it was illegal for us to work on anything during the shutdown. Illegal as in, we could be fined up to $5,000 and charged with a felony to check our work email. A felony!”
Why would anyone contemplate doing this to National Parks? Seriously – our elected leaders, in all their infinite wisdom, would mandate a “do not work under penalty of law” policy for park rangers and resource interpreters? I spent a great deal of time fixated on the date October 1st, the beginning of the government’s fiscal year, for my countless analyses and projections. I modeled out what sorts of fiscal scenarios would exist if sequestration continued in its current state, or worse yet, took a further dip. Strategizing how management could best respond under hypothesized stress tests, sustain the office’s operations, and still hit its bottom-line. But to conceive of a frozen balance sheet?
Park service employees and other rank-and-file government workers don’t relish the fact that they were afforded with a subsidized vacation. They simply wanted to work – counting down the days until the government developed a backbone and conscience to lead and act. Although furloughed workers got their pay back, the damage is done. People who want to join the government ranks are feeling increasingly discouraged, while current workers have experienced a loss of morale and feelings of unwantedness. My friend captured it best: “it’s tough to hear that so many people find little to no value in what you work so hard to accomplish. It is a privilege and an honor to work for the National Parks, a manifestation of the idealistic goals that inspired me to become a landscape architect – to be able to make a difference for the greater good. There must be literally thousands of others out there that are feeling the same indignation that I am”.
As a student of Public Policy, at a School of Government, I hope that we all learn from this experience and gather the strength and foresight to ensure that we never repeat this mistake. Too idealistic of me, you might say? Yeah, perhaps. But I keep in the back of my mind why we devote our lives to public service, in whatever form it may take. Before I started my summer consultancy, National Park Service Comptroller Bruce Sheaffer bought me a birthday drink and told me, “National Park Service employees are paid in sunrises and sunsets, Phil – never forget that”. Bruce, I won’t. As public servants, we work tirelessly on behalf of others to experience our own version of sunrises and sunsets. Don’t let anyone rob you, or others, of the experience to feel or deliver true value.