National Parks Highlight Need for Civil-service Reform

Published May 15, 2017

Environmental groups predictably took National Park Week as an opportunity to decry President Donald Trump’s proposal to cut the budget for the Department of the Interior from $13.2 billion to $11.6 billion, a reduction of about 12 percent. They claim the reduction will be the death knell for America’s natural wonders.

As someone who worked for the National Park Service, in Yellowstone National Park, I can attest NPS has its fair share of waste, fraud and abuse, and there are plenty of places where more efficient practices can be utilized to provide a better return for taxpayers’ investment.

First, there was my job. I was assigned to the maintenance department in the Canyon district. My very prestigious job involved emptying garbage cans and scrubbing toilets. As a college student, I was ecstatic to make $12.50 per hour as a federal employee working in America’s first national park, but the job could just as easily have been contracted out to a private vendor for $8 per hour, providing a 38 percent savings for taxpayers for the same level of service.

Then there’s the nature of being a federal employee. Federal employees are often caricaturized as being wasteful and unable to do their jobs. I can’t speak for all federal employees, but when it comes to my experience, the stereotype exists for good reason.

Older, established employees taught the greener, younger employees how to get away with doing as little as possible, and we (myself included) took these lessons to heart. Whether it was showing the newbies which keys opened the gates to restricted back roads where massive herds of elk roamed free — something that is strictly prohibited — or informing us that our 15-minute break during the day was really, really flexible, the expectation was that abuse and inefficiency are the rule, not the exception.

These practices were made worse by the fact that it is extraordinarily difficult to terminate bad employees. A recent investigation by CBS News found it is nearly impossible to fire poor performers or problematic employees in NPS, even when they’ve committed egregious violations. My experience in NPS corroborates the story. Employees who were bad at their jobs were kept on staff for fear of lawsuits and because the process for firing an employee can take years to complete. As a result, incompetence is accepted as normal and typically swept under the rug. It is simply not worth the hassle to attempt to fire useless workers.

In addition to the inefficiencies associated with inflated labor costs and the virtual impossibility of firing bad employees, budgets are bloated, because politics, not fiscal prudence, is the guiding principle for many of the decisions made at NPS.

For example, NPS routinely bought more expensive but supposedly eco-friendly cleaning supplies as part of its “green cleaning” initiative. This manifested itself in NPS purchasing Simple Green brand as a window cleaner, which retails for about $7 at Home Depot for a 67-ounce bottle. By contrast, a bottle of Windex of the same size retails for about $5.50 at Wal-Mart. Despite costing taxpayers about 21 percent more per bottle than name-brand glass cleaner, Simple Green is not as effective as Windex, which is corroborated by an analysis by cleaning website The SpruceEven more savings could be realized if NPS were to purchase generic window cleaners, which cost less and are nearly as effective as Windex. These are the sort of political decisions that increase costs to taxpayers while providing no measurable environmental benefits.

Newly appointed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke should take steps to find efficiencies in his department’s budget, and Congress and Trump should take serious steps to enact civil-service reforms that will lower costs and improve the quality of service provided to taxpayers. They can start by making it possible from NPS managers to fire employees who are unwilling or incapable of doing their jobs.

[Originally Published at the Deseret News]