Conservation District Professionals in the 21st Century

A PAPER ON THE HISTORY AND FUTURE DIRECTION OF DISTRICT EMPLOYEES ON LOCALLY LED AND DELIVERED SERVICES.

PRODUCED BY THE NATIONAL CONSERVATION DISTRICT EMPLOYEES ASSOCIATION - NCDEA

Prepared by Mike Lovegreen

 

I,    INTRODUCTION

The earliest role of Conservation Districts was the identification and prioritization of the conservation needs of their respective jurisdictions. The volunteer board worked closely with the federal and state resource management agencies to deliver services to their constituents. District Board Members promoted available programs and services, lobbied for needed assistance, provided critical educational programs and assured vital community links. For the most part, Districts served as a referral agency in that they worked with their various partners to promote and secure needed assistance for their landowners.

Over the last two decades, Conservation Districts have moved into a service delivery arena. There are currently Districts in the U.S. that are administering multi-million dollar programs that encompass cost-share programs, technical assistance, equipment operations, facilities ownership and management, educational facilities and programs, and sophisticated legislative liaison relationships. Many State Natural Resource Management and Water Quality Agencies are using Districts as efficient program delivery partners. In many cases, Districts are exceed the financial and technical local capabilities of their State and Federal partners.

The expansion and success of the Conservation Districts has resulted from and in the development of their administrative and technical capabilities. These capabilities are embodied by the emergence of a class of Conservation District Professionals, who serve at the discretion of the District Boards. In Districts that have successful programs there is a common link between the efficient and effective use of these District Professionals and that success. The complexities of operating and maintaining extensive local conservation delivery programs, interacting on the growing sophistication of local, state and federal conservation issues, managing growing staff, and developing and implementing local policy is creating a demand for ever increasing abilities and professionalism of this class of District Employees. The enhancement of these abilities and professionalism can help to assure that Districts can continue to grow as well as in assuring that District Boards maintain the relationship and connection to their staff is essential.

This paper is an attempt to outline the history of the development of District Professional staff and to set the stage for discussion in more efficiently utilizing and coordinating the skills of these District individuals in meeting the challenges of Conservation District program delivery at the local, state and national levels.

For the purpose of this paper, the discussion will focus primarily on the District Employee and is not meant to reflect on the Boards and federal/state partners/associates, or to discount their roles in the development and implementation of conservation programs.

 

II.    A REFLECTION OF WHERE DISTRICT EMPLOYEES CAME FROM

The earliest District employees appeared as clerical assistants to the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). SCS provided conservation planning and technical assistance to the agricultural and general community but for the large part never provided clerical support for their technical staff at the field or county level. Since Conservation Districts were first organized as the local partner of SCS, the earliest staff were secured through local funds to provide this clerical support. In areas where sufficient resources were available, and the local will was to accelerate services by the SCS, District staff was hired to serve as technicians to assist in the field (i.e. rodman). For the most part, day to day supervision of these District individuals was assigned to the District Conservationist, SCS, since they were for whom the services was being provided.

Additional duties related to the Districts themselves for these early employees, were to promote the services available to the local residents being provided by the federal and state partners, primarily SCS. Board business such as keeping District meeting minutes, correspondence, etc. was usually a secondary workload.

At this point in our discussion it is important to distinguish the difference in the roles of the two sets of employees operating within the same SCS office. The SCS personnel represents the federal government, USDA, within that county. As such, they operate under defined guidelines that set up a very specific relationship with local and state people and agencies. District employees on the other hand, represent the local community from which they come. They have personal vested interests in the work they are doing, as do the local District Board members. Since many of these employees were assigned to the SCS, there rarely were any clear guidelines given by the Boards on how to accomplish local program needs that were outside the SCD program areas. The case was usually "do whatever it takes".

We should also keep in mind that while there is currently much work being invested on "partnership" structure and defining roles, there was very little early on simply because it was not an issue. Since these times, many of the current partners, in particular Districts, have gone a long way down on their own individual program roads.

 

III    THE DEVELOPMENT OF DISTRICT EMPLOYEE ROLES

The appearance of District Employees, especially one that had duties beyond clerical, was the first time Boards/Districts had a full time physical presence in the community. The employee was now available to attend meetings and include District views when it was not physically possible for the Board members to do so. In other words, assure that the District was at the table. This community presence is physically tied to the individual hired by the District. This soon results in the association of the individual to the District and vise-a-versa, within that community.

The District Employee, also for the first time, presented the Board with a full time set of eyes and ears to bring new local perspective/issues to the Board. These issues were not necessarily colored with the agency perspective that is defining much of the "partners" programmatic views. Often many of the issues brought to the Boards by their employees where other then the traditional agricultural issues historically dealt with. These perspectives/issues began the growth of Districts in directions that often resulted in the cultivation of new partners/associates as well as program areas. In essence, the full time employees gave the Board a full time contact for the community that was truly independent and locally controlled.

In many of the Districts, early employees were hired under soft dollars or program money. For many years this resulted in little continuity of people and program direction, as individuals would leave soon after they developed the necessary skills. Quite often the only career ladder for the District employee was to secure a position within one of the cooperating agencies with whom they worked. As funding began to stabilize however, District staff began to grow not only in numbers but also in administrative, technical, and political ability. District Boards were directing staff to become the point of contacts with agencies and legislators alike. District employees were developing the abilities to efficiently and effectively state the needs and opinions of their respective Districts. As mentioned earlier, they were doing so with the conviction of individuals that represent their home areas. One of the more obvious results of this increased capability of these newly emerging District Professionals, was the securing of more and more programs, projects and grant dollars. This in turn resulted in a growing number of staff. As the ability of the local Districts to administer a cost effective and locally acceptable program increased, many states began to look to Districts for similar program deliveries.

As District programs become bigger and more sophisticated, District Boards were forced or influenced out of necessity into a policy role versus a day to day administrative role. Boards went from approving such items as stamps and stationary purchases to policy on how to set spending guidelines for multiple grants, programs and staff. A real need emerged for the securing of a professional manager to make the day to day implementation decisions within the scope and philosophy of the Board. The challenges for the Board were to find individuals that had the skills and abilities as well as the philosophy that best represented them. Where they were successful, District programs grew by leaps. For the District Professionals, the challenges were to condense information and communicate it on increasing numbers of programs and issues to their Boards in order to facilitate the policies needed.

For the vast majority of Districts, the results are dramatic increases in programs and responsibilities. Districts and their staffs, all of which are local, are less constrained by many of the programmatic guidelines set up by partner programs. The approach by Districts is usually more aggressive and creative due to the local need to get a problem addressed. This creates new partnering opportunities where traditional programs can direct resources through the Districts to accomplish goals that were difficult in the past. This creates even more growth for the Districts. The facilitation of these emerging new relationships with the Districts' traditional partners is often left to the District Professional who now has a greater grasp on the many intricacies of the programs in questions then the Boards to. This "District spokesman" role of District Professionals with the various agencies has resulted in even greater influences and respect for them is some cases, and resentment in others.

It is vital to keep in mind that District Employees/Professionals are driven by the same principles, values and goals as the Board Members are. As stated several times before, both groups are representative of the local area. The staff position attracts individuals usually because of the mission of the District and not the dollars. For the scope of program administration, both monetary and career ladder futures are not industry equivalent. The large proportion of staff are extremely dedicated to the mission of the District, as are their Boards, and have created a new class of "Professional Volunteers" that is often uncounted. To accomplish the tasks set before them by the Boards often involves flexible hours and for that matter flexible life. The full time representation of the District within the community becomes a full life style for many requiring night meetings, weekends and overnight travel. In many cases where the manager is the physical representative of the District, the task becomes a 100% role within that community where it becomes difficult to separate the person from the position.

The result has been that District Professionals have emerged in many areas as leaders in the community and even state and national arenas. They have become effective administrators, orators, writers, lobbyists, negotiators, facilitators, educators and fundraisers. In many counties they represent the largest source of technical assistance in meeting local needs. They have become one of the most effective methods of program delivery systems because they are local. District Boards have learned to direct and utilize these talents to facilitate tremendous growth in many Districts. States have utilized these talents and skills to implement programs and further agendas. As a group or class of individuals, District Professionals wield as much influence with their Boards and the future of conservation programs in America as any other single group.

 

IV    DISTRICT STAFF NEEDS AND ISSUES

As the growth and development of the District Professionals has greatly enhanced the growth and development of the Conservation Districts, it also presents a number of challenges. The very fact that District Boards are delegating more and more responsibility to their staff is overwhelming in itself. On the staff side, the very responsibility of accepting such responsibilities can be just as overwhelming. Where these challenges are being met the growth and successes of the conservation movement are greatly enhanced. However there is potential that if these challenges are not met, serious consequences could be experienced. The following is a brief discussion of some of the challenges to be addressed.

Who Do I Work For?

In many States and Districts there are still real identity crisis being experienced for the District Staff. The question of "who do they work for" is often confused by local, state, and federal claims on their assignments. Boards themselves are often confused on this issue. One can imagine what it is like to be an employee and not have a clear understanding. While much is a result of past evolution of the District programs, many of the problems arise because of new delegations and roles handed down by the states.

How do Districts Staff do the Job of Separating Personal Versus District Views in Order to "Professionally" Represent District Ones?

As we discusses in the previous section, District Professionals generally live in the Districts for whom they work. They have vested interests in the outcome of local programs. Their tasks are to present information and opinions to the Board in an unbiased manner as possible to facilitate a Board/District policy.

How do we get Administrative, Personnel Management, Community Leadership and Other Training Needed to Districts?

District training needs are specific to Districts. Much of the administrative, leadership training being delivered to Districts is lacking. The majority of training is program specific or technical in nature. Historically NRCS and others have provided adequate technical programs, but little administrative. There is no real state or national consistency on programs to meet these needs.

How do Managers/Administrators Facilitate the Board/Staff Relationship?

This issue constantly emerges as a major concern whenever District staff meet on needs. There is a very real awareness that the complexity of some District programs require a full time involvement to grasp. With volunteer part time Boards, the District Professional is challenged with condensing, filtering and demonstrating local relevance to that Board in a limited amount of time in order to facilitate a decision and /or policy. Add to this the increase complexity of state and national conservation issues and the threat of "overload" or "glaze over" by the District Board and the challenge to deliver and disseminate information becomes critical. District Professionals are struggling to find methods to facilitate policy making by District Boards. There are real needs to assure that the Board maintains the control as well as the responsibility for the local program. This also becomes a self-preservation issue for the staff in assuring that they are not operating in "left field" beyond the Board's understanding.

As District Professionals Become Just That - Professionals, as well as More Effective at Advocating the Local District Position/Needs in Local, State and National Arenas, how do They Avoid More Potential for Conflict?

As the District Professional becomes more effective in achieving the goals their Boards set them to, there are cases where resentment has occurred. In some instances, this resentment has been directed to the individual District Professional. As Districts, through their staff, become more effective at creating "ripples" in the system there is the potential to see a rise in this resentment. It is often forgotten that these effective "noisy" people are representing their District views and not the employee views. There is the challenge for Boards and partners alike to assure those District Professionals are representing those Board views, and if so, stand behind their representatives.

How do we Develop Recognition/Certification for Professional and Technical Accomplishments of DIstrict Staff to Provide a Benchmark Target for All?

This challenge is self-explanatory but needs to be considered. The lesson being learned "on the job" by many of the District Professionals needs to be networked and shared with other Districts. In the reductions being experienced by many of the conservation partners, the Districts that have evolved to the point of accepting new roles will thrive.

How do State and National Associations Integrate and Utilize the Skills and Abilities of the District Professional?

The challenge for state and national associations is to integrate the lessons being learned at the local levels. Local Boards have developed and refined highly effective tools in the District Professionals and are achieving increasing gains with them. There are a number of examples where District associations and District staff associations are developing independently and some where they are developing as one unit. Throughout the country there are many examples varying between these two development tracts. Quite often, employee associations are created in response to meeting professional development needs not being met elsewhere.

 

IV.    WHY DISTRICT EMPLOYEE ASSOCIATIONS FORM

Each state has unique circumstances and relationships that develop for numerous reasons. There is an increasing number of District Employee/Professional Associations being created in many states. The discussion here is restricted to several of the perceived common reasons for the formation of these associations.

First, and in most cases foremost, are the needs described in the section proceeding. Many of the District Professionals are not finding the training accessible that is needed to develop the skills increasing District programs are demanding.

Districts have a natural affinity to network and share information, programs, methods and experiences. Associations are natural outcomes to meet the specific needs for this networking among those with common professional missions.

Many of the Employee Associations began earliest where program pressures was the greatest. Program diversity, funding and sophistication along with increasing staff management issues created a void that needed to be filled.

As the sophistication of programs grew, there needed to be voices at the table that knew how new policies and programs affected the clients in the field. Quite often these levels of evaluation went beyond those of the policy makers (Boards) and a need was created to develop this "voice from the field" in an organized manner. While state and federal agencies maintain a field presence in many areas, they are still representing the state and federal view as is expected.

There is a need for peer and professional recognition and certification for the development of District Professionals. This comes from a need to both hold up the examples for the rest to follow as well as provide a degree of protection in establishing the technical credibility of the District Professional in the field delivering services.

There are a number of different approaches to the organization of District Professional groups. In some states, the District Employees have been fully embraced as integral parts of the process that develops and evaluates District programs, directions and policies. In other states, separate associations have been formed that develop input to District business from an independent perspective. Differing approaches have their strengths and weaknesses based on the needs being addressed. There are model descriptions available for those District Associations exploring such directions.

The real challenge that faces many of our District Associations is in how to incorporate and utilize the growing skills and influences that these District Professionals have developed into the business at hand. The failure to do so could result in both missed opportunity and the mismanagement of a resource that local Districts have been cultivating for the last several decades.  

 

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