Last September, the U.S. Forest Service decided not to renew a longstanding contract with Avue Digital Services, a privately held firm in Tacoma, Wash., that had been hosting the agency's online jobs database since 2005. The Avue license cost the Forest Service more than $34 million in the past seven years. But the data created from that pricey partnership is now lost to the federal government; under contract, Avue retains proprietary ownership of the position descriptions it generated for the Forest Service. Now the agency faces the incredible task of rewriting potentially 40,000 position descriptions from scratch.
This development recently came to the attention of Andy Stahl, executive director of the Eugene, Ore.-based nonprofit Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. A friend of Stahl's from within the Forest Service complained to him of the seeming waste of taxpayer dollars over the years, and of the frustration of having to draft new position descriptions from a blank slate.
"She was upset because she thought that the money spent with Avue had not bought the government anything," Stahl recalls. "All the work had to be redone."
Stahl promptly requested copies of the Forest Service's Avue contract as well as the agency's payment records to Avue, all of which he later shared with the Independent. The development is particularly galling, he says, because Avue generated much of its data using previously existing Forest Service position descriptions—meaning the agency can't use those as a template in redrafting either. Stahl wrote a scathing blog post about what he calls the "Avue debacle" in early January.
"The notion that you should...have somebody outside the government writing the document that says what government employees are supposed to do strikes me as bizarre," Stahl says. "Here at [Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics], I wouldn't contract with the Sierra Club to write the position descriptions for the people who work here."
A Forest Service spokesperson in Washington, D.C., told the Indy this week that the agency is not offering any media comments on its Avue contract or the redrafting of position descriptions "at this time."
The Forest Service's relationship with Avue—essentially a license-based online database similar to LexisNexis—came as part of a larger move during the Bush administration to competitively outsource various functions at federal agencies with the perceived goal of increasing efficiency and decreasing expenses. The Forest Service subsequently outsourced a number of jobs ranging from human resources to vehicle maintenance. The Indy wrote extensively about the push to privatize in a June 2006 cover story, citing the Forest Service's consideration to outsource more than 75 percent of its jobs nationwide. The article specifically mentioned the drawbacks of the move experienced in California, where federal inspectors began to uncover critical safety issues in the maintenance work done on fire engines by a British company.
Several Forest Service employees in western Montana at the time complained to the Indy about frustrations directly related to the agency's outsourcing and centralization efforts.
Avue eventually became an extension of those frustrations, particularly within the wildland firefighter community. Online firefighter forums have been punctuated for years with unfavorable comments about Avue and the difficulties many experienced in applying for jobs through the site. The Forest Service's break from Avue was welcome news for some.
"HALLELUJAH!!!!!" wrote one forum user at wildlandfire.com in spring 2012, when the agency first announced its plans to move away from the Avue system. "The end of AVUE is coming soon!!! Lets do this RIGHT Forest Service! To be honest, if we were required to use a 1972 typewriter and mail the application on one of those Wells Fargo stagecoaches, that would be better than AVUE."
Beyond the $34 million the Forest Service dedicated to its contract with Avue, the loss of position description data could pose a significant problem for the agency in the short term. Such documents contain a list of the responsibilities individual employees are tasked with and are typically used by employers to execute annual performance reviews. And since those reviews take place on the anniversary of an employee's hiring, the loss of that data to Avue is possibly already being felt on a daily basis.
Stahl offers a hypothetical to underscore the tough road the Forest Service has ahead. "Imagine that your position description vanished if your employer didn't renew a contract with another corporation. It just vanished, didn't exist anymore. Nor would your employer be allowed to use that vanished position description to prepare a new one for you. Your employer would have to prepare your replacement position description out of whole cloth."
The scenario doesn't sound extraordinarily time-consuming—until you multiply it by 40,000.