I spent 15 years working at mission-driven nonprofits. It was a fertile environment for new ideas. I found if I had a good idea, and it fulfilled our mission, I was free to make it happen once funding was secured. The principle caution was not to break any laws in the process.
I’ve also been a manager with the National Park Service. Shortly after joining the federal workforce I discovered a fundamentally different approach to implementing good ideas. And there are just as many generated in government. The decision about whether to “go for it,” well, that gets complicated.
NPS is a mission-driven organization. Many employees will tell you that’s why they show up at work every day. However once the mission test is past, government employees must then check to see if the activity is AUTHORIZED, as well be mindful of not doing something illegal.
The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.
The power of the executive branch to act comes from the U.S. Constitution and laws passed by Congress. There is a National Park Service because Congress created it by law in 1916. In addition to establishing the agency’s purpose, the 1916 law—and subsequent laws—established what NPS staff is allowed to do. Sometimes a good idea is not within bounds of those allowed activities.
For instance, accepting the help of volunteers is a good idea, right? NPS uses volunteers to augment maintenance, administration, resource management, and visitor services. They do this because Congress AUTHORIZED the acceptance of volunteer work through the Volunteers in the Parks Act of 1969. The same is true for the authority to accept donations, which Congress granted in 1920 for donations consistent with NPS goals and objectives.
Of course, many other laws also guide and direct park staff. Add to this decision-making mix the interpretation of laws by the Executive branch, which are written into regulations, and decisions by the leaders of NPS: agency and park policy.
A unique aspect of national parks, compared to other federal lands, is that each park is individually authorized by legislation. The enabling legislation for a particular park may give NPS more or less authority to engage in activities like partnerships. It’s therefore essential to be familiar with a park’s specific legislation.
Remember, federal employees cannot work with a partner just because it’s a good idea. In addition to mission alignment, the activity must be authorized.
This work by Bruce Jacobson is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International License—Attribution-ShareAlike.
Photo by Andrew Gosinet, Yellowstone National Park, 07 July 2014.