NEPA and the USDA Forest Service: Some Lessons Learned Over 40 Years of Implementing "Open Government"

In the Open Government world, we spend a lot of time focusing on phone apps, e-mail marketing, data sharing, social networking, blogging, etc. All of these are great tangible examples of openness, but really, they are just tools. At the heart of an Open Government there are three guiding principles: transparency, participation, and collaboration. An example of a government agency that has been working toward these goals and has gotten pretty darn good at reaching them for over 40 years is the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

The Forest Service did not just come to work one day in 1970 and decide “Hey! We’re going to involve the public!” Really, they came back after the New Year holiday and discovered that the entire legal landscape had shifted for their agency, though it would take some time to realize the shift had occurred.


On January 1, 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law. Among other things, NEPA requires that for every major federal action, an environmental analysis be done to determine the possible impacts of the action on the environment and that the public be involved in nearly every stage of the process. These environmental analyses often take years and sometimes have hundreds of opportunities for the public to get involved.

The Forest Service also operates under the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act (MUSYA) of 1960. MUSYA directs the agency to manage its lands for the uses of timber, range, water, recreation and wildlife equally. Often, these uses are competing and the conflicts around these uses are intractable, further complicating the NEPA mandate to involve the public.

NEPA forced the Forest Service to learn the benefits of transparency, participation, and collaboration the hard way. When the public feels as if their preferred use of the forest has not adequately been considered or that they were not adequately involved in the NEPA process, they can sue. These lawsuits cost the Forest Service millions of dollars a year in legal fees and lost time, not to mention the emotional toll exacted on agency employees who sometimes are required to re-do years worth of work or see it tossed out altogether.

The costs that the Forest Service has incurred have not come without their benefits. In the last 40 years the Forest Service has arguably undergone a paradigm shift about its relationship with the public from a “father knows best” attitude to a “let’s work together” attitude. Throughout this time period, the Forest Service has had some “lessons learned” that can apply to all Open Government initiatives.

It’s all about values…

When I’ve interviewed Forest Service employees about these public involvement processes, they almost always conclude one thing: public values are the most meaningful information that they can get from the public. I’ve heard about public meetings conducted by the Forest Service where participants were given colored dots to place next to proposals that they thought were ideal. These exercises were perceived as useful initially, but when they stopped to think about it, they realized they had very little information. They knew that plan A was preferred to plan B, but had no idea why. They had turned their public participation opportunity into an election (and all know the outcome of most elections: 49% of us just end up angry about the outcome). This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing--they had more information from the public than when they started. But they realized that they could have spent their time more productively by trying to get at what the public valued, instead of giving them a few options that they were forced to vote on.

Quality over quantity…

The previous example also helps illustrate how quality public engagement is more useful than a lot of bad public engagement: quality over quantity. You’re probably thinking, “James, tell us something we don’t know.” But what I didn’t tell you in the previous example was that the people on this particular Forest Service project didn’t learn that they had no data until they had held over 10 “dot sessions!” The problem here is “how do we measure success?” Unfortunately, we are most often measured by our outputs, our countable metrics so we end up touting that we have 100,000 subscribers to a mailing list or hosted 50 listening sessions, or posted X volumes of environmental analysis online, but have little to show for it in return.

What we should be focusing on is our outcomes and the quality of those outcomes. The principles of open government all address outcomes of public engagement. Collaboration is a subjective term; what is good ‘collaboration’ to one person may not be for the next. This can be a major pain point for assessing the quality of public engagement.

Quality public collaboration is something that the Forest Service has grappled with over time and from my discussions with field personnel it may ultimately boil down to one concept: trust. There is no phone application to build trust. Trust is built when the public and the agency both have a reasonable expectation that the other will follow through on what they say and do. Building trust takes time and effort. To this end, the Forest Service has hired a cadre of social scientists and public involvement specialists to assist in engaging the public, now spends a great deal of time engaging the public, and gives nearly every employee some kind of training on interacting with and engaging the public.

There’s no turning back from Open Government

The Forest Service knows, once you involve the public – there’s no turning back. In the 1980s the Forest Service struggled with which projects they should be actively engaging the public. They quickly learned: all of them.

One person who I talked with told me about a highly controversial project where they successfully engaged the public in a meaningful way and the project was implemented successfully. Soon thereafter another project was initiated where the agency did not engage the public as much as before and there was a public backlash to not being involved. Trust in the agency was eroded, the public accused the agency of attempting to hide things, members of the public were alienated, and after the project was over, lawsuits were filed against the agency.

The fact is, the public perceives participation and collaboration in government as their right and rightfully so. The Constitution notes that all rights not reserved for the federal government are devolved to the states and those not reserved to the states are devolved to the people. Few would debate that public participation in government is necessary for a functioning democracy. As Open Government and other previous administration initiatives such as e-government become seen as more of a way of doing business, rather than just empty buzzwords, we can expect that the public will not only expect to continue to participate and collaborate in government through electronic means, they will demand it.

So remember what the Forest Service already knows; once all the #opengov hashtags have dried up and we have moved on to whatever the next cool new buzzword is out there: public participation is largely about incorporating public values, quality of collaborative efforts trumps quantity, agency-public trust is a fragile and fleeting thing, and that the principles of Open Government, transparency, participation and collaboration have been here for a long time and they are here to stay.

Some questions to keep the discussion going:


1) Values come not only from individuals, but also from groups who represent the interests of their members. How can agencies use open government to best incorporate values from multiple sources without running the risk of alienating anyone?


2) Additionally, how can government best build trust with the public through open government and what are some strategies to avoid damaging that trust?