A Cultural Shift in the BLM
By Linda Colville
In 1991, BLM Service Center Director Marv LeNoue did a bold thing. He hired his associate director from outside the BLM. Not only did she have no land management experience, but she wasn’t even 40 years old. Marv needed someone who knew large-scale automation project management (to guide the $400 million Automated Land and Minerals Records System project) and someone who knew the BLM; he also knew he was going to have to train someone in one of those two areas. The expectation was that he would hire a BLM manager with field experience and send that person to technology management training. Instead, he hired me from the Defense Department, where I had worked in and taught technology project management and implementation. It was the beginning of a cultural change for the BLM and quite an adventure for me.It would be hard to overstate the differences between managing in the Defense Department and in the BLM. The Defense Department was global and had a budget of around $350 billion. The BLM was mostly focused on western rural issues and was tiny by comparison. Military managers could choose to collaborate and often did, but they could also choose to issue orders at the top and classify sensitive information rather than share it. Local politics in the Pentagon were limited, and there was little incentive to work with state or local officials or really anyone outside prescribed channels. BLM managers, on the other hand, had grown up with the “sunshine laws” of the late 1960s and early 1970s and often needed to seek support from a wide variety of individuals and groups. Decisions were often intensely local and sometimes personal; national policies had to accommodate that. Additionally, the BLM was not funded to accomplish all of its legal mandates, so my earliest dilemmas were about figuring out how to get things done, which involved much more than budgets, decision authorities, and figuring out whom to call. I learned that in the BLM, we often got things done by working together. Impatience was rarely rewarded—mine or anyone else’s.
As I moved around and learned more about BLM’s programs, I had many opportunities to experience this collaborative approach. I’ll never forget working with the wild horse program staff to get funding for a hydraulic tilt-squeeze chute (to use in trimming hooves when wild horses in captivity can’t run off the new growth). I understood the need but knew next to nothing about the actual work. The program staff needed an argument that would be effective with Bureau decisionmakers, so I wrote the business case, the staff filled in the blanks, and with a little editing, we had the cost effectiveness argument down pat. At the decision meeting, they explained the current method without the new equipment, which illustrated big safety issues, and showed how the savings in the business case would be realized. We got the funds, and they got the equipment.
During the 1990s, BLM executives filled more leadership positions from outside the Bureau, and a number of state directors were hired from outside the federal government. While external recruitment wasn’t new, the numbers and levels of positions filled from outside were. The BLM hadn’t really prepared to orient and integrate managers at these levels, and it didn’t always go well. The expectations and habits of career BLM employees had to change, too; career ladders weren’t so certain, and criteria to be competitive for management promotions evolved.
At the same time, BLM executives refocused and expanded leadership training for employees at all levels. This training was offered to employees earlier in their careers, became a part of career development for more employees, and encouraged external developmental assignments at management levels. Cumulatively, these actions broadened the composition of the Bureau’s leadership and had a profound effect on the BLM. Not only did such actions change the face of the leadership of the Bureau and the culture of its employees, but they also helped position the BLM for the 21st century. Many experienced managers were reaching retirement age, and the Internet was beginning to drive the need to share information, ideas, and skills across agency and private/public sector lines.
Conventional wisdom among management consultants is that if you have a choice between changing an organization’s process and changing its culture, you should change the process; it’s easier and less likely to bite you. But knowing when a cultural change is ripe, well that’s an art.
Linda Colville was the associate director for BLM’s Service Center and served in several management positions at both the Colorado and Utah State Offices, as well as in an interagency BLM/USFS technology management position in Oregon/Washington.