Forest Service business consolidation created problems, GAO says

Blending of budget, HR and IT fell short on savings, shifted duties to field

The Forest Service centralized its human resources and IT a decade ago, but problems that the reorganizatiuon birthed are still causing difficulties, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The consolidation “resulted in significant negative repercussions for field-unit employees, including increased responsibility for business service tasks,” the GAO said in its Aug. 25 report.

“Although the effects of centralization on employees varied, cumulatively they have negatively affected the ability of these employees to carry out their mission work,” the GAO concluded.

The changes began when the Forest Service consolidated three major business services and systems -- budgets and finance, human resources and IT -- in the early 2000s. Initial estimates were that the changes would generate $100 million in savings.

However, the service hasn't been able to reliably demonstrate those savings, GAO said.

"The Forest Service estimated that anticipated annual savings through fiscal year 2010 may have been achieved in budget and finance but not in human resources management or the Information Solutions Organization, where the agency estimated that savings fell far short of its cost-savings goals,” the GAO report said.

The centralization included a shift in administrative duties, creating many new tasks for the field offices, which included nine regional offices and seven research stations overseeing 155 national forests, 20 grasslands and 600 ranger districts, the report said, adding that under the centralization model, the field offices were to take on additional administrative responsibilities. Using a self-service approach, the field employees were given responsibility for many business service tasks.

For example, before centralization, a field-unit employee would get help from a human resource specialist to complete and process retirement and benefits paperwork. With the new system, the field employees are supposed to initiate those actions directly with automated systems, with a help desk. The same shift happened for computer-related tasks.

However, the self-service approach proved to be inefficient and frustrating, the report suggested.

Field employees said they now responsible for “tasks often requiring a significant amount of time or expertise to complete,” GAO said. “Even carrying out simple tasks can prove to be difficult and time-consuming,”

“Because staff might do such tasks infrequently, and because the processes or procedures for carrying them out may change often, field-unit employees told us they must spend time relearning how to perform certain tasks every time they carry them out,” the report added.

For example, before centralization, a specialist would fill out paperwork to put a seasonal employee on non-pay status. After centralization, field-unit supervisors became responsible for that task, but because they only perform the task once a year, and because procedures to complete the task may have changed during the year, “completing this action or other apparently simple actions can be difficult and time-consuming, according to officials,” GAO said.

Overall, the self-service approach presented many difficulties, the GAO concluded.

“According to field-unit employees, these increased administrative responsibilities, coupled with problems with automated systems and customer support, have negatively affected their ability to carry out their mission work and have led to widespread employee frustration,” GAO said.

GAO made three recommendations, including advising that the Forest Service should complete a comprehensive assessment of which tasks can be effectively carried out under the self-service approach and which tasks require a specialist.

Forest Service officials generally agreed with the findings and recommendations.

 

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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