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NPS Fundamentals Essentials: Operations at the National Level

Overview

Whether you are a new employee or interested in employment with the National Park Service, understanding how the organization functions is vital to your success. Are all parks the same?  How is the work divided? How are the sites managed?  What do the different divisions do?

Known as “Essentials,” these topics provide insight into how the National Park Service manages the entire system of parks and programs to accomplish its mission.  Reading through each topic gives an overview at the most basic level with opportunities to link to more in-depth, specific information.

Introduction

The NPS national headquarters and support centers are collectively called the Washington Support Office (WASO). Employees at WASO provide services to regional offices, park units, program areas, and NPS partners, as well as coordinate with other agencies and bureaus in the Department of the Interior (DOI). They also receive direction from the Secretary of the Interior, Congress, and the White House.

WASO supports the NPS mission at the national level by providing leadership and advocacy, policy and regulatory formulation and direction, program guidance, budget formulation, legislative support, and accountability for programs and activities managed by the field and key program offices. It manages service-wide programs that by their nature can most effectively be carried out from a central location.

About seventy-five percent of WASO employees work in Washington, DC. The Main Interior Building (MIB) houses the NPS Directorate, Associate and Assistant Directors, and national-level offices. Program managers and their staffs who work for the staff at MIB are headquartered at 1201 Eye Street. The organizational structure is fluid to meet the current demands of the NPS.

Twenty-five percent of WASO employees are located at service and training centers outside of Washington, DC and provide professional and technical support to regions and park units. The Denver Service Center in Colorado and the Historic Preservation Training Center (HPTC) in Maryland are a few examples. Each center is managed under an Associate Director (AD).

NPS Leadership

The Directorate is the head of the NPS organization, and consists of the Director, who is a political appointee, and two Deputy Directors. The Directorate’s role is to oversee the management, strategic planning, policy, and overall direction of NPS while responding to priorities set by the White House, Congress, and the Secretary of the Interior. General duties of each position include:

The Director:

  • Focuses on external relations for NPS, such as appearing before Congress and working with the Department of Interior (DOI) personnel
  • Aligns NPS with DOI priorities and initiatives
  • Is a political appointee (This is not a duty)

Deputy Director of Operations:

  • Focuses on NPS internal operations
  • Supervises Regional Directors (RDs)
  • Supervises most of the Associate and Assistant Directors (ADs)
  • Coordinates communication among NPS leadership
  • Is a career conditional employee

Deputy Director of Communications & Community Assistance:

  • Focuses on external politics and supports the Director on Congressional requests
  • Responsibilities vary depending on the current issues before the Director
  • Supervises some of the ADs
  • Is a political appointee (This is not a duty)

The Directorate works with other NPS managers to stay informed, coordinate and align all levels of NPS ensuring consistency in making decisions and taking action. Meetings are held regularly to receive input from Superintendents, Regional Directors, Program Chiefs, and Associate and Assistant Directors, as well as solicitors (lawyers), and Senior Executive staff such as the Comptroller. One management group is the National Leadership Council (NLC), chaired by the Deputy Director of Operations. The NLC role is to provide advice, input, and opportunity for debate and open analysis of issues. The Executive Council (EC), chaired by the Director, is a smaller subset that makes decisions and establishes standing committees.

A typical work week for the Director and Deputy Directors includes an average of eight to ten meetings a day; their tight schedules are managed by the Chief of Staff and staff assistants. The Chief of Staff decides what issues need to come to the attention of the Directorate and what can be dealt with by ADs and program managers.

Directorates and Offices

The Deputy Directors supervise the ADs and program office chiefs, who manage national-level departments. Each program within the department is coordinated by a program manager. The ADs work closely with the RDs to implement programs at park, regional, and service center levels. WASO manages programs that affect the entire park system, multiple units or regions, such as, climate change, uniforms, international affairs, Wild and Scenic Rivers, working with tribal nations and museum collections.

Having program leads at the national level helps reduce redundancies, provides a consistent message or policy, and is a better use of resources when dealing with a large geographic area or specialized topic. Depending on the program, there may be WASO counterparts at a regional office and/or park unit. Directorates and offices include:

Response to National Issues

Political, social, and environmental climates affect how the Park Service is managed and funded. It is the job of the Directorate to steer the NPS based on these current issues. Current issues may include the creation of new park units, a re-organization of WASO, communication challenges, and issues that impact fulfillment of the NPS mission.

The NPS is actively engaged with the ever-changing political and social landscapes: from testifying before Congress on the First Amendment activities in national parks to park units that were created to tell the story of change: Manzanar, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Brown v. Board of Education.

Issues are elevated to the Directorate from all directions: parks to their regional office, parks to ADs, from the Secretary of the Interior, other bureaus in DOI, Congress, and phone calls and letters from the public. An issue may be of national scope and interest that concerns many parks, such as the ban on plastic water bottles in parks, or it could be a specific issue that rises to national attention, such as the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone. NPS leadership deals with questions like:

  • What should the policy position of the agency be? What is appropriate for the park level or national level?
  • What is best for the agency as a whole? How do we position ourselves to meet the challenge? Are there opportunities to leverage?
  • What are the priorities of the White House? Of the Secretary of the Interior?
  • What are the short- and long-term impacts on the NPS and its mission?

Coordination is essential between the NPS and the Secretary of Interior’s office, which includes the Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Policy, press releases, budgets, and congressional affairs go through channels at DOI. NPS offices like Legislative and Congressional Affairs and the Chief of Staff have counterparts with the Secretary’s office.

Challenges and Issues

WASO is continually responding to a variety of political, environmental, and economic issues. It is the interface between NPS and DOI, Congress, the White House, the Secretary of the Interior, and oversight government agencies, and requires constant and consistent adaptation. For example, the Director and associated staff may be called upon to appear before Congress to explain demonstration permits, beach closures to vehicles, or allocation of funds.

Regardless of who makes the inquiry, WASO is obligated to respond. What makes the task difficult is the decentralized organization of the NPS, whereby each region, unit, and office adapts individually to the challenges and resources each has to manage. With over 400 NPS units, WASO cannot possibly stay up-to-date on every aspect of each unit. Inquiries sent to WASO, may require a response from a park unit. Effective communication, both within the NPS and outside, is a constant challenge at all levels.

WASO and the Directorate’s office are responsible for the management, administration, policy, and overall direction of the NPS.

Additional Resources

Several options are available to stay informed of news pertaining to the National Park Service:

 

 

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