Agency retreats from contentious $10M ‘branding’ initiative

By Phil Taylor | 01/06/2015 01:20 PM EST

The Forest Service abandoned a $10 million rebranding effort today after the proposal sparked opposition from some employees and a government watchdog group.

The agency had announced plans in November to hire an outside firm to help it achieve "strategic organizational transformation, identity clarification and social purpose branding and branding management, and multicultural engagement and outreach."

The request for proposals, which closed just before New Year’s Day, offered up to $10 million over the next five years.

Some called it a smart investment that could have boosted employee morale, bolstered public trust and strengthened support from Congress.

Others called it a waste of money that could have been better spent restoring watersheds, building trails, thinning unhealthy forests or beefing up staff.

But the agency is putting the effort on the backburner, for now.

"No bids from this proposal were accepted," a Forest Service spokesman said. "The Forest Service will continue to seek other ways to enhance citizens’ access to the nation’s forests and grasslands, and increase citizens’ knowledge of the services available to them."

The plan had stirred debate among the agency’s 35,000 employees, some of whom took umbrage at hiring an outside firm to help the Forest Service find its identity.

"Nothing like this has ever been done before," said Andy Stahl, executive director for Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics and a critic of the plan. "There is a substantial level of disagreement in national leadership on whether this is a good idea."

The agency manages 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands for multiple uses including timber, grazing, wildlife, research, recreation and conservation. Those often-conflicting mandates from Congress are tough to articulate in an elevator speech, let alone communicate to the general public.

Its stated mission is "to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations."

The presumed front-runner for the branding contract was Metropolitan Group, a Portland, Ore.-based "social change" firm that the Forest Service previously tapped to help its Pacific Northwest region "reflect on its roots and discover its future."

The firm said it helped the region’s 3,000 employees in Oregon and Washington state "rediscover" the mission outlined by the Forest Service’s first chief, Gifford Pinchot: "to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run."

"We clarified the region’s core identity using the greatest good as a frame to unify and communicate a complex array of ideas and work," Metropolitan Group said on its website. "From this foundation we crafted a new vocabulary, look, and feel that employees are already using to more successfully engage with each other and the public."

A sample of the firm’s work can be found here.

Metropolitan Group has also been contracted by the Forest Service’s Intermountain region based in Ogden, Utah, and the Pacific Northwest Research Station to "foster a more powerful and shared appreciation of agency mission amongst internal and external stakeholders."

The total value of its contracts is believed to exceed $1 million.

The regional efforts were a "starting point for an agency-wide undertaking to prepare its workforce to engage in a cultural transformation and identity clarification," according to the Forest Service’s November RFP.

Metropolitan Group currently holds a $527,000 contract that runs through next month to help Forest Service leaders take the regional branding and identity effort nationwide.

The firm recently opened a Washington, D.C., office at 1029 Vermont Ave. NW, saying on its website that "the White House and other federal sector clients — including NASA and the U.S. Forest Service — are just a short walk from our office."

The $10 million national branding effort for the service was billed as a "follow-on" contract, with Metropolitan Group as the incumbent contractor.

Stahl, of the forest employees group, questioned its merits.

"Who decided that the Forest Service needs a new brand and identity?" he said. "Is Smokey dead?"

Focus shifts

Stahl said it’s unclear where the money would have come from in the Forest Service budget and why current staff could not perform the tasks in-house, which would save money to maintain trails or decommission roads.

He said few within the agency admitted knowing about the contract and none had been willing to talk about it.

Some employees bristled at the proposal.

"The mission of the Forest Service is what it has always been: protecting the land and serving people," said one employee, who wished to remain anonymous in order to speak freely. "Why is it necessary to hire a contractor to figure out that we need more boots on the ground protecting the land? It is that simple."

A fresh brand and better public engagement could help, but it won’t fix deteriorating recreational sites and trails and declining forest health, said another employee.

"A $10 million campaign trying to convince the public we are doing great things without actually doing them will only further damage the Forest Service image," the employee said.

Said another employee, "It’s a shame we have to rely on people outside the Forest Service to tell us what we are."

But others employees said they’d lost sight of the Forest Service’s mission, suggesting the need for an agencywide identity check.

Until the 1980s, the Forest Service was seen primarily as a timber-cutting agency, carrying out a mission defined by Congress in 1897 to secure "favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber," while protecting forests.

But as public attitudes toward clearcutting changed and wildlife including the northern spotted owl and salmon gained protection under the Endangered Species Act, the agency shifted its focus toward conservation and recreation. The Clinton administration in 2001 barred logging or roads on roughly one-third of the agency’s land.

The agency in 1987 sold a record 12.7 billion board feet of timber, but in 2013 it sold 2.6 billion board feet, in part because even relatively noncontroversial timber sales are challenged in federal court.

At the same time, overstocked forests, droughts and increased residential development have sent wildfire fighting costs through the roof. The Forest Service’s firefighting budget increased from 16 percent of its budget in 1995 to 42 percent today, forcing cuts in other budget areas and earning the agency the nickname the "Fire Service."

"By all appearances, we have lost our identity, and are groping blindly in the dark for anyone who can tell us what we stand for now," said one employee.

Hank Kashdan, a 37-year Forest Service employee who retired four years ago as associate chief, said that despite the "unfortunate wording" of the agency’s branding proposal, it was "probably a fairly worthwhile effort." Much of the blowback appeared based on the misconception that the Forest Service would spend the full $10 million, when in fact it would have maintained discretion to spend much less, he said.

"So many people view the Forest Service as only about fighting fire," Kashdan said. "Some think it is fire and cutting trees. Some think it is fire and preserving lands. This contract really seeks to figure out how communities understand [the agency] and how the agency can better represent the multiple-use mission the agency is all about."

‘Clear line of sight’

A 2013 internal agency survey found that barely half of agency employees think the Forest Service is accomplishing its mission (Greenwire, Sept. 25, 2013).

Efforts to "unify diverse sectors around a shared appreciation of the agency mission," as outlined in the Forest Service’s branding call, may be money well spent, said John Palguta, vice president at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit aimed at improving government jobs.

"I don’t think it’s silly at all for the Forest Service to want people to have a better understanding of what they do and why they do it," he said.

Public understanding can lead to greater public support, which can lead to more robust budgets from Congress, Palguta said.

Employees must also have a "clear line of sight" that connects their work to the agency’s broader mission, he said. "One thing any organization can do is make sure there’s good internal branding," he said.

Other federal agencies have rebranded to stay relevant to the American public, Palguta said.

Just last month, the Government Printing Office got Congress to change its name to the Government Publishing Office to better reflect its increasingly digital portfolio, he said. The Government Accounting Office in 2004 became the Government Accountability Office, in part to shake the perception that its employees were "the green eye shade people," Palguta said.

"There’s good internal branding," he said of GAO. "They take to heart that they’re making government more efficient for the American public."

While it’s not unreasonable for federal employees to grumble about the cost of a branding and PR contract, particularly when budgets are tight, Palguta said $10 million spread over five years is a relatively small percentage of the Forest Service’s roughly $5 billion annual budget.

There are similar grumblings about investing in information technology, he said. But while the upfront costs can be steep, long-term efficiencies can pay dividends, Palguta said.

"The reality is good management is looking out for the strategic long-term well-being of the organization," he said. "We need to invest now to prevent problems down the road."