NPS Fundamentals Essentials: Culture


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.


Organizational culture is defined as the specific collection of values and norms that are shared by people and groups in an organization and that control the way they interact with each other and with stakeholders outside the organization.

Whether private or public, all organizations and companies have their own unique culture, including the National Park Service. There is no specific handbook or training course on culture. It is learned by interacting with and observing other people in the organization. For example, the NPS is known for employees who are committed to its mission, provide a high level of customer service, have high standards for project success, work with many partners to accomplish goals, and utilize thousands of volunteers, at all levels and across all programs, to address needs.

While there may be “ways of doing things” that are common throughout the NPS, there can be some differences in procedures and how needs are addressed. For example, urban parks may utilize many contracts with local companies, have access to thousands of people who want to volunteer, and may depend on a large local fire department in emergencies. Rural parks may have higher costs to utilize companies, may need to be more strategic in accessing volunteers, and may have their own emergency staff and equipment or utilize a distant fire department. As with any large organization, groups of people create their own working environments. The NPS strives to ensure that all work places are productive, safe and promote employee success. The NPS works to resolve issues and problems as they arise.

Ranger Wendy Baldwin shares bug boxes with a young visitor at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Ranger and young visitor at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Universal Competencies

The Universal Competencies “thread through all disciplines to inculcate the mission of the organization, hone understanding of its values and goals, and prepare [all NPS] employees for leadership and personal development.” They are a foundation for the entire workforce commitment to:

  • Protect, value, and understand the NPS mission
  • To manage and protect our nation’s treasured resources
  • Provide for the public enjoyment of NPS managed resources; establish, maintain, and build partnerships in protecting those same resources
  • Maintain a strong and effective organization with a great breadth of responsibilities

The Universal Competencies are the foundation for all of the NPS Fundamentals Essentials and e-learning modules. The competencies which provide direction for the NPS and its employees are:

  • Mission Comprehension: A thorough background and understanding of the 1916 NPS Organic Act and its many ramifications and the additional responsibilities that have been added to the NPS throughout its history; and a perspective of how the National Park System began as a part of the Conservation Movement that continues today.
  • Agency Orientation: A basic comprehension of the structure and organization of the NPS at the park, cluster, field area, and Washington Office levels; an understanding of the structure and organization of the Department of the Interior and its place in the Federal Government; and the development of an insight into an individual employee’s role in the NPS in particular, and in the Federal Government in general.
  • Resource Stewardship: An overall understanding of the spectrum of resources protected by the NPS; the range of NPS responsibilities in managing these resources; the individual’s role in resource stewardship; the planning process and its purpose in the NPS; and working with partners outside the agency to promote resource stewardship.
  • Fundamental Values: focuses on an employee’s ability to exhibit certain attitudes and behaviors to accomplish an assigned job and to contribute to the overall health of the organization. These include: leadership and teamwork behaviors; ethical behavior towards people and the organization; support of cultural diversity and fairness issues in the workplace; support of accessible parks and workplaces; an attitude towards safe behavior for one’s self and for others; and mental and physical fitness.
  • NPS Operations: This competency encompasses a general comprehension of the basic operations of the NPS, especially at the park level; how these operations interact to fulfill the Mission of the NPS; and why visitors come to parks and how the NPS “manages” them.
  • Communication Skills: This competency encompasses the ability to communicate effectively with the public and employees in writing and speech; to use interpersonal skills to be an effective employee; and to exhibit basic computer abilities.
  • Problem-Solving Skills: This competency deals with the ability to analyze a problem, build consensus, make decisions, and practice innovation in various aspects of one’s job.
  • Individual Development and Planning: This competency considers an individual’s being able to work with one’s supervisor and agency to plan a course of action for one’s performance, career, and ultimately, retirement.

NPS Core Values

The core values of an organization are those values which form the foundation on which members perform work and conduct themselves. Many private and public organizations have their own core values, including the NPS. Our core values are not descriptions of the work we do or the strategies we employ to accomplish our mission. The values underlie our work: how we interact with each other, and which strategies we employ on a day-to-day basis to fulfill our mission.

  • Shared Stewardship: We share a commitment to resource stewardship with the global preservation community. We are proud that national leadership in resource preservation is the National Park Service’s essential public trust. We know that we do not have all the answers to every challenge, yet we champion heritage preservation throughout the United States and the world. The insights and knowledge obtained from all such efforts contribute to our collective success.
  • Excellence: We strive continually to learn and improve so that we may achieve the highest ideals of public service. We encourage creativity, innovation, and vision so that we may achieve excellence as we fulfill the mission of the National Park Service. As caretakers of the natural and cultural resources of the United States, we individually and collectively collaborate to be worthy of the trust given to us by the American people.
  • Integrity: We deal honestly and fairly with the public and one another. We take responsibility for our actions and their consequences. We do so in ways that are ethically based and represent the highest standards of public service.  Through our actions we aim to earn the trust of those we work with and serve. We are accountable to the public and each other.
  • Tradition: We are proud of it; we learn from it; we are not bound by it. We use only the best from our past to meet the challenges of the future. The continuum between the past, present, and future sustains us as a vital agency. We hold the mission and the traditions of the National Park Service in our thoughts and actions so that it is apparent in our work and interactions with one another and the public.
  • Respect: We embrace each other’s differences so that we may enrich the well-being of everyone. We value the ever-changing diversity of our employees, visitors, sites, and the stories of our heritage. We learn from each other’s creativity and talents to become richer individuals. We base our actions on the principles of inclusion, empathy, and dignity.

The core values are exemplified throughout the NPS with activities such as wearing the NPS uniform at community events, hosting public planning meetings, providing outreach in local schools, and working with communities and private land owners to preserve important historic or natural areas.

The Universal Competencies and Core Values serve as the foundation that connect all employees of the NPS, regardless of their occupation, position, background, experience and expertise, to work effectively together as leaders for the service’s future.

Three rangers converse together.
Rangers at North Cascades National Park.

An Organization of Tradition and Service

Among the most recognizable images of NPS culture are the uniform and arrowhead. The arrowhead was authorized as the official National Park Service emblem by the Secretary of the Interior on July 20, 1951.

The elements of the emblem symbolize the major facets of the National Park System. The Sequoia tree and bison represent vegetation and wildlife, the mountains and water represent scenic and recreational values, and the arrowhead represents historical and archeological values.

To prohibit commercial uses of the arrowhead design, an official notice, approved March 7, 1962, was published in the Federal register of March 15, 1962 (27 CFR 2486), designating it as the official symbol of the National Park Service.

The ranger uniform has its origins dating back to 19th century military uniforms. During the past century, the uniform has evolved to the distinctive gray shirt, green pants and jacket, and “Smoky Bear” or campaign hat; field work may mean the use of a different uniform hat – such as a ball cap.

Women’s uniforms also evolved from the “stewardess” garb, skirts, and pantsuits. Today women and men wear the same uniform style. NPS employees who often engage the public are most likely to wear a NPS uniform.

There are variations in the uniform to address weather and field needs. For example, facilities and maintenance staff wear an NPS uniform that is durable, easy to clean, and resistant to wear and tear. Some variation in uniform attire may be permitted to address personal health and safety needs. Examples include allowing an employee to wear cotton rather than wool pants to address an allergy concern, similar looking – but nonstandard – footwear to ensure the shoes are wide enough, comfortable, and have an appropriate tread, and a wide brimmed hat – rather than the field ball cap – to cover ears sensitive to sunlight or prone to cancerous growths.

A ranger gives an interpretive program at Fiery Furnace.
A ranger gives an interpretive program at Fiery Furnace.

Customer Service

Another important tradition of the NPS is maintaining its reputation for excellent customer service. Good customer service enhances the level of customer satisfaction and meets or exceeds customer expectations.

Every employee can influence how someone feels about the NPS, perhaps even change a person’s life-long perception. NPS employees are federal civil servants who have proven good customer service has long-lasting impacts on both public views and public support. The NPS and its employees place a high level of importance on providing excellent customer service by meeting the needs of the public needs, demonstrating a “return on the investment” of tax-payer dollars, and supporting the local, regional and national economy.

One measure of customer service is the annual Visitor Card Survey administered by the University of Idaho. Results of this survey consistently indicate that 97% of the park visitors rate the quality of NPS facilities, services, programs, and staff as good or better. NPS customer service is highly regarded by visitors. The Visitor Survey results show there is an area for improvement: that our service needs to be more inclusive of the American public.

The NPS needs to learn more about the people who do not visit national parks. Are the reasons due to time constraints, travel costs, not feeling welcome, not knowing what recreational activities are offered? The NPS is also striving to ensure that the public is aware of the national park’s special programs and responsibilities assigned by Congress.

Examples of good customer service include:

  • An interpreter “going the extra mile” (e.g. researching a field guide) to identify a bird for the visitor
  • Rangers performing an emergency rescue to an injured climber over a dangerous cliff
  • A custodian ensuring the restrooms are clean and maintained with toilet paper and towels stocked
  • Natural and cultural resources staff and planners working with local communities and stakeholders in developing a new trail
  • NPS employees often interact with partners such as concessions, cooperative associations, friend’s groups, local communities, and other agencies

In order to function, an organization must have administrative and support staff. The administrative and support staff serve employees in a variety of ways, such as processing payroll, providing technical support, promoting employee development, and establishing direction and policy. The NPS continually strives to engage the public and employ a workforce that reflects our nation while evolving and ensuring its mission is relevant and important to everyone.

Additional Resources

National Park Service Universal Competencies Website

National Park Service Core Values Website

National Park Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public, 2008-2009, Racial and Ethnic Diversity of National Park System Visitors and Non-Visitors

National Park Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public, 2008-2009, Broad Comparisons to the 2000 Survey



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