Public organizations are a vital part of our society at every level. At local, state, regional, national, and international levels, the public sector constitutes a large part of governing forces that influence our lives and surrounding world. Public organizations, through their overarching sector and broad sphere of influence, serve the public, who are essentially their investors and stakeholders. Public organizations serve the public by providing goods and performing services. They are indispensable in helping civilization and its inhabitants continue an existence of domestic and global societies. They work to avert potential crises and dangers that appear.
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Organizational ethics are a vital part of public organizations, and help leadership of such organizations lead properly, with duty and integrity. It is because of established administrative ethical codes and proper leadership qualities, or lack thereof in some cases, that public organizations continue to run as they do (Cooper, 2012). There are many ideas defining organizational ethics that are expanded on throughout organizations across society. Beliefs, challenges, decision-making, development, dilemmas, integrity, leadership, relationships, responsibility, and whistleblowing are just some of the factors involved in organizational ethics.
One major public organization in the United States is the National Park Service (NPS). As one of the primary leading agencies grouped under the United States Department of the Interior, the NPS is a key public organization in American society. The agency is tasked with management of all national parks, monuments, conservation areas, and historical properties throughout the United States (National, 2019). The NPS aims to preserve American culture and society through multiple avenues, by preserving environmental and historical integrity of hundreds of sites across the country and keeping them accessible as experiences for the public’s use and leisure. As such, the NPS is ripe for discussion of analysis of organizational ethics and leadership.
The National Park Service was established on August 25, 1916 through the passing of the National Park Service Organic Act. Landmarks, monuments, and parks were originally run by the United States Department of the Interior, to increasing levels of strain when balancing their other commitments. Therefore, an independent agency to serve this purpose was founded, having the same intentions 103 years ago that it has today. Its mission of conservation and preservation has not changed in more than a century of continued operation. The agency is one of ten branches of the Department of the Interior and is headquartered in Washington, D.C (National, 2019).
The objectives for the NPS at the time of its creation were to conserve natural and historic objects, scenery, and wildlife, and provide enjoyment for the public through such conserved means. They were to preserve them for future generations and realize the potential educational, inspirational, and recreational benefits that the historical and scenic qualities of the parks and monuments could provide (Sutter, 2002). After World War II in the postwar United States, public desire for outdoor leisure expanded the NPS’s responsibilities. The NPS continued to grow in scope as more landmarks, parks, and monuments were recognized and included under the agency.
The focus of the NPS has remained largely the same throughout the century since its establishment. The agency still works to conserve and preserve many national sites scattered across the country. They also promote public engagement with the natural world and future-minded environmentalism and sustainability through various means of communication and media. The NPS has updated its mission statement and its purpose to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the education, enjoyment, and inspiration of this and future generations” (Sutter, 2002). Over time, the agency has grown from nine initial parks to over 400 current sites, and more areas are inducted every year.
There are several regional branch offices of the National Park Service operating across the nation, in addition to the headquarters office in Washington, D.C. Office locations include Anchorage, Alaska; Atlanta, Georgia; Denver, Colorado; Omaha, Nebraska; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; San Francisco, California; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Seattle, Washington (National, 2019). Multiple regional offices are required to control and monitor numerous national sites, in addition to increased populations frequenting each site. As the NPS is one of the biggest agencies of one of the biggest federal departments in the United States, it is a prominent public organization worth analyzing for its administrative ethical and leadership practices.
As a prominent public organization, the NPS’s administrative ethical and leadership practices are capable of being exemplary for other, similar organizations, regardless of their scale. The NPS is a large, widespread, federal-level governmental organization, but its values are easily translatable for governmental and non-governmental public organizations at every level. As the NPS is a federal agency, its workers are government employees and represent the United States government, which is perhaps the largest overall public organization in the land. Therefore, the ethics and leadership qualities of the NPS are of great value for analysis.
Examining the NPS’s ethics and leadership as part of their organization will give strong evidence into the agency itself. Their aspects of culture, style, and values can be garnered through the analysis of their ethics and leadership. This evidence will assist in determining if the agency, in its current state, is ethical or unethical, and strongly or poorly managed. It will help create a sense of the positive and negative influences that surround it. It will also provide an idea for alternatives, should any be feasible and necessary, for the NPS’s current practices and values. There are many facets to the NPS that must be considered to take all factors into account.
The National Park Service is an expansive, scattered organization that employs and serves a wide variety of individuals, in every corner and at every level of its domain. As the NPS is a public organization, there are two sides to credit for keeping them up and running: the employees running the agency, and the public accessing the agency’s assets. The NPS has a director, law enforcement, staff, and volunteers. These public service employees comprise one half of the total of main actors for the organization, while visitors comprise the other half. Neither half can exist as they do without the other, and the NPS itself cannot exist without the sum of both.
The NPS is overseen by a singular agency executive, a Director. The current executive acting in the capacity of Director is Daniel Smith. He is not the full Director, as the position has been vacant since January 20, 2017, when the former Director resigned as the new administration was inaugurated. There has not been a new Director appointed as yet under the current administration (National, 2019). There have been eighteen Directors since the establishment of the NPS in 1916, with businessman and outdoorsman Stephen Mather serving as the first NPS Director as well as one of the key proponents for the creation of the agency (Sutter, 2002).
The NPS also has a multitude of employees and volunteers in various capacities, with each group and its members having some degree of management for their respective fields. Though they all report to supervisors, executives, and eventually the Director, employees and volunteers comprise the bulk of the NPS’s workforce. The NPS employs many types of workers with unique strengths and talents, including park law enforcement, staff, and volunteers. There are specially-designated employees tasked with special projects occurring under the banner of the NPS. There are also specially-designated employees who coordinate international affairs. Finally, there are visitors and tourists who frequent landmarks, monuments, and parks (National, 2019).
The organizational structure of the National Park Service is as broad as the agency’s sphere of influence. There are many branches to the organization, and it is a complex web of networking that is typical of any large bureaucratic agency. The NPS currently employs around 27,000 paid individuals in its workforce, operating across 419 designated sites nationwide. Each site is classified as a national area, building, landmark, memorial, monument, park, road, scenic trail, structure. National areas include all manner of lakes, land, reservoirs, rivers, and seashores that can also be reserves and preserves. There are objects in museums and archeological sites that are part of the NPS, and all sites have a workforce maintaining and operating them (National, 2019).
NPS employees are split into four main groups: law enforcement, site staff, special projects, and volunteers. NPS sites are patrolled by the United States Park Police, who are the oldest official federal law enforcement group in the country. They primarily police sites in California, New York, and Washington, D.C. There are also Rangers who patrol rural and remote sites, and Agents who conduct investigations when necessary. There are approximately 220,000 NPS volunteers that contribute around 6 million volunteer hours cumulatively. Staff include dispatchers, historians, maintainers, planners, and public affairs specialists (National, 2019).
The NPS receives approximately 280 million visitors every year across each of its 419 sites. The top 41 most-visited sites of the NPS account for 63 percent of all visitors, leaving the remaining 378 sites accounting for the remaining 37 percent of visits (National, 2019). Tourism is the backbone of the NPS’s industry and operations. Apart from federal funding, it is what allows the organization to continue serving the public through a cyclical means. The government and the public funnel funds into the agency, who utilize the funding for events, projects, renovations, and more. These services are then funneled back to the public for enjoyment and leisure.
While the National Park Service is a beloved, renowned agency to the public, one that is important to our country’s culture, history, and identity, it is not without its issues. Problems relating to administration and ethics do not completely plague the NPS, but they do exist and have affected the organization over time. It is important to separate ethical problems from leadership challenges; problems related to administrative ethics involve issues with the governing moral principles of the agency (Svara, 2015). Challenges related to leadership involve obstacles that the governing authorities of the agency must overcome (Daft, 2016).
The former NPS Director, Stephen Jarvis, was accused of conflicts of interest, as his brother was a lobbyist for the commercial rafting industry that provides products to national parks. Several cases of harassment and whitewashing came to prominence, as multiple incidents of sexual harassment were reported at the Canaveral National Seashore and the Grand Canyon National Park. The former Superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park was caught with thousands of explicit sexual images on his work computer and transferred to a position in Washington, D.C. in an attempt to cover up the matter (National, 2016).
The former Superintendent of the Grand Canyon sold his on-location house as a concession for three times higher than the market value, making a large profit and not seeing it as a conflict of interest. A former Park Ranger at the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal blew the whistle on a secret deal between the park Superintendent and private industry to have park trees cut down and was fired to cover it up. Two Park Rangers were fired after whistleblowing on their supervisor’s corruption at Mesa Verde National Park. A Park Police Chief was fired for speaking to the press about budget cuts to the agency (National, 2016). These examples demonstrate that most of the agency’s ethical problems are a result of the friction between subordinates and superiors.
Until fairly recently, the National Park Service workforce was largely entrenched in archaic hiring and employment practices. Employees were mostly white and male, and these demographics dominated as the trend. There was little progress in the way of diversity for the NPS until the last couple of decades. The culture of the agency was considered troubling by those who were able to examine and investigate it. It was this lack of workforce diversity that allowed for corruption and nepotism to exist throughout the organization, such as backscratching and quid pro quo acts (Office, 2018). Cover ups are possible by colleagues hiding deals for other colleagues. This creates an atmosphere of despair for those who want to work in the agency for actual public service goals.
A challenge for good leaders in the NPS is dealing with bad leaders. As the agency is so expansive and widespread, it is difficult to maintain complete organizational loyalty among all employees, and some supervisors at various sites seek to abuse their power in various ways. They mainly make secret deals with private industry for personal gain, and sometimes throw their subordinates under the bus (Office, 2018). Site staff such as Rangers and Police become privy to corrupt leadership and lose their jobs for it. With a lack of a proper Director, the NPS has also suffered from a lack of directional leadership and has floundered in its mission in recent times.
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The current administration also presents a leadership challenge for the NPS. As the President has long demonstrated himself as an opponent of the natural world, the NPS has suffered under his leadership. A new NPS Director has not been appointed in more than two years since the last inauguration, and the administration has been systematically seeking to exploit NPS sites, especially national parks in the western United States, for their natural resources that they are rich with. Due to the current climate at the NPS, staff morale has significantly declined, falling to the bottom quarter of federal agencies in employee satisfaction (Alt, 2019).
Unfortunately, the National Park Service does suffer from negative internal and external influences. The agency is affected by surrounding factors as well as factors from the inside of the organization. The current presidential administration is a negative external influence on the NPS, as they are committing multiple actions and going out of their way to affect the NPS, to detrimental effect. Budget cuts at the federal level of the NPS filter down and penalize sites nationwide, pulling funding from the headquarters to the most remote historical areas. The administration is also seeking to utilize NPS sites for their resources, such as petroleum or rare earth minerals, and this severely threatens the sanctity that the NPS has sought to uphold for a century (Alt, 2019).
Another negative external influence on the NPS that, in smaller doses could be considered a positive influence, is the concept of “overtourism”. This is a problem that means that some NPS sites are receiving too many visitors to handle on a regular basis, becoming overcrowded and having their resources stretched too thin to sustain (National, 2010). This is mainly an issue for the more famous, more frequented sites such as renowned national parks. The NPS survives and thrives on tourism, but too much of a good thing is hurting them. They have a dual mission of conserving and preserving the natural world while making it accessible for the human world, and overtourism is negatively influencing the NPS by making their values clash.
Negative internal influences on the NPS come from within the agency, and in some cases, have been a long time coming or existed for a while without conflict. The company culture of the NPS has long been considered potentially toxic, as it is largely monolithic and nondiverse (National, 2016). The NPS is actively striving to create an atmosphere of diversity in hiring practices. Corrupt leadership has also negatively influenced subordinate performance and staff morale, creating a trend of negativity among many workers at every level.
For all of the negative influences that surround and stem from the National Park Service, there are comparable levels of positive internal and external influences on the agency. While there are corrupt officials in superior positions, subordinates at the ground level are actively working against questionable leadership and attempting to carry out their responsibilities and tasks dutifully, with a sense of integrity. The bureaucratic entanglements of the agency have allowed for supervisors to take advantage of their power, but low- and mid-level employees have managed to practice personal leadership, leading change and fostering organizational development, even if it costs them their jobs. They face ethical dilemmas and must make hard decisions.
NPS staff that are positive internal influences often have to face the difficult question of getting out versus staying in. There are numerous reported cases of NPS subordinates whistleblowing on their superiors and involuntarily paying the price, taking the brunt of the blame or the fall through a cover or set up to save the supervisor. The wide variety of NPS staff that are employed by or volunteer with the organization lend authenticity and integrity. Employees and volunteers outnumber high-level superiors, and often times those that are forced out of their jobs are able to return after investigations are conducted and superiors resign.
Another positive internal influence on the NPS is their special divisions. These divisions focus on special projects relating to areas as diverse as archeology, architecture, astronomy, biology, economics, energy, and fisheries and wildlife (National, 2019). The special divisions help to positively bridge the gap between the NPS and other agencies. Additionally, thought it was mentioned that overtourism is a negative influence on the NPS, accommodable levels of tourism are a positive external influence on the NPS. Without visitors, the agency could not continue to exist and perform its mission. Therefore, its customers positively influence the organization.
There are some alternative ideas and recommendations to the current organizational structure and management style of the National Park Service that could be beneficial in addressing existing ethical problems and challenges. Changes to policies, organizational arrangements, and responsible ethics would make for welcome improvements in the agency. The NPS has not always been victimized by corruption as it has in recent times, and it would be possible through some considerable effort to return the agency to what it formerly was. The NPS could again become an agency of decisiveness and integrity monitoring some of the nation’s most well-known places.
A policy that might be helpful for addressing current challenges and problems facing the NPS includes an increased focus and advanced protections for whistleblowers. Based on my research, there appears to be many instances where whistleblowers came forward with issues related to NPS officials and were punished for it. They deserve security in these actions. A change to organizational arrangement that might be helpful includes a restructuring of the current site management model. Instead of one Superintendent at each site overseeing many employees, there could be 2-3 Superintendents at each site to provide accountability for one another. This would increase the NPS’s budget though, which has already been cut.
In response to the present administration’s environmental policies seeking to damage the natural world, an “Alt National Park Service” has risen as a vocal opponent to the President and his cabinet. The Alt National Park Service is comprised of activist NPS employees who disagree with their superiors and the leadership of other departments with close interactions, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Alt NPS workers are standing up for the NPS they used to know in many ways, through anti-administration propaganda and encouraging the public to take a stand and fight, especially for their national parks (Alt, 2019).
At this point, the future is somewhat uncertain for the National Park Service. Given the dissention between the leadership and employees, as well as the ethical problems being perpetuated by various members of the workforce, there are challenges that must be dealt with for the agency to move forward. The next steps for the NPS would involve taking a close look at what is working and what is not for the agency. It appears that issues facing the organization are mostly internal and unforeseen by the general public, who still value the mission of the agency and support them as much as ever. Internal problems are responsible for the created conflicts.
The future strength of the NPS more or less depends on the support or lack thereof by the presidential administration in power. Under the former Obama administration, the NPS thrived as the natural world was protected and respected. Under the current administration, the NPS has essentially split into two entities: the official NPS and the unofficial Alt NPS (Alt, 2019). There must be cohesion for the agency to survive. Superiors and subordinates must cooperate properly. Those employees who found it necessary to create the Alt NPS must find their way back to their agency, but those in the agency must also rectify the existing issues. This is unlikely until the United States experiences a change in presidential leadership.
The ethical problems and leadership challenges faced by the NPS can be overcome if the workforce comes together to tackle them (Cooper, 2012). The NPS might also seek external support from other agencies and even citizens’ groups to focus on fixing some of their issues. Somehow, the agency could aim to mediate their overburdened national parks due to increased crowds of visitors, even though such burgeoning tourism is economically prosperous for them. It is both a blessing and a curse, but it is not exactly the biggest problem the NPS faces. Rather, they must aim to fix themselves from within, and outward change might follow.
Public organizations are prominent examples for public service values, especially regarding administrative ethics and bureaucratic leadership. Ethics and leadership are key facets to include when analyzing an organization because they assist in defining the duty, integrity, and responsibility inherent in a particular organization and its employees. The National Park Service is a popular public organization, a service-minded agency that benefits the public, and benefits from the public. Their ethical values and leadership qualities are relevant and significant for organizational leadership, as their practices affect millions of people nationwide every day.
The NPS is scattered across the country and employs thousands of individuals across all fifty states. There are many actors throughout the agency, which is composed of a complex management system. Bureaucracy is usually a branching, complicated system of administrators performing public services, and the NPS is no different. Due to many personalities interacting in different environments nationwide, ethical problems sometimes arise, either in secret or out of conflicts between the workforce and the leadership (Cooper, 2012). Managers take advantage of their position to make unethical dealings with private industry to consume resources found at their designated sites, for personal financial gain or for ambitions of greater power.
The questionable leadership practices of some NPS officials have led to various leadership challenges for other officials. Managers who retain positive leadership qualities have difficulty compensating for the misbehavior of their peers. A lack of an agency Director for over two years and the current administration have given the NPS more leadership difficulties. With a lack of leadership, there have been some negative influences on the agency, though some positive influences have also arisen. There are also alternatives to how the NPS is currently operating, where profound change or maintenance of the status quo will affect the future of the agency.
- Alt National Park Service. (2019). About the Alt National Park Service. Washington, D.C.: Alt National Park Service.
- Cooper, Terry L. (2012). The Responsible Administrator: An Approach to Ethics for the Administrative Role. (6th Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. ISBN: 978-0-470-87394.
- Daft, Richard L. (2016). The Leadership Experience. (7th Ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning. ISBN: 978-1-337-10227-8.
- National Council on Public History. (2016). Does the National Park Service Have A Culture Problem? Indianapolis, IN: National Council on Public History.
- National Geographic. (2010). Top 10 Issues Facing National Parks. Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society.
- National Park Service. (2019). About the National Park Service. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service. United States Department of the Interior.
- Office of the Inspector General. (2018). Allegations of Ethical Violations and Misconduct by NPS Superintendent. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of the Interior.
- Sutter, Paul. (2002). Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
- Svara, James. (2015). The Ethics Primer for Public Administrators in Government and Nonprofit Organizations. (2nd Ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett. ISBN: 978-1-4496-1901-5.
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