On the rewards for idealism

in the National Weather Service


Chuck Doswell

First posted: 12 January 2003 Updated: 01 March 2003: added a link to an interesting site describing D. Michael Abrashoff's innovations to leadership in the military.

As always, this is my opinion and nothing more (or less). If it offends you or you wish to offer any other sort of feedback, send it to me at: cdoswell@earthlink.net.

When a scientific bureau descends to the four-year office-holding plane it at once loses prestige, and ceases to be a desirable post for competent men.

-- Mark W. Harrington, U.S. Weather Bureau Chief 1891-1895 (fired)


Idealists? In the NWS?

Given that many citizens believe the U.S. Government Civil Service to be a bureaucracy bloated with freeloaders and parasites, it may come as something of a surprise that in my experience, there are many idealists working as forecasters for the National Weather Service. It might be the case that a minority of forecasters fit the widespread perception of government employees, but the majority of those I found in the NWS are just the opposite ... they care very much about the job they are doing, they work very hard to be as good at it as they know how to be, and are committed to serving the public.

Within that majority, a few are unrepentant idealists ... unlike the cynics, they have not yet given up hope that they can provide excellent service to the public. These idealists are the backbone of the NWS, and I am proud to consider them friends. A few of them are lifelong colleagues I have been honored to be associated with for decades. I won't embarrass them by naming them ... they know who they are! They strive constantly to learn, they volunteer to do whatever it takes to improve not only themselves but to inspire those around them to do their best, and they contribute many hours of their own time every week to accomplish all this, while expecting (and getting!) little or no reward other than the respect of their peers.

One of the main reasons their task of improving themselves and the NWS as a whole is so challenging is the abysmal quality of the support system that's nominally tasked with making NWS forecasting a reality. The management of the NWS has been so miserable, for so long, I find it amazing that the system endures. Perhaps the main reason it endures in the face of this incompetence at the top is the idealism and dedication of these individual forecasters. These men and women make the system work successfully despite all the myriad obstacles to success imposed on them by the very management team that is nominally there to support the truly productive part of the NWS ... the forecasters (and those whose work helps make forecasting possible, like ETs).

I have already ranted at some length about NWS (and NOAA) management. I won't repeat all of that, here. But there are several things that upset me about NWS management that involve failures of recognition on their part.

Recognition of the quality people in the organization

It seems to me that with a few exceptions (usually no higher than at the local office level), NWS management seems terribly ignorant of the sort of "stars" they have in their system. Instead, it seems that they work especially hard to create problems for the very people in their organization who are working the hardest to improve NWS products. Apparently, they regard people who "rock the boat" as enemies of the system, rather than the best and the brightest lights on the team. The idealists are trying to make the system better, and for that, they receive bad performance ratings and get criticized for not being a "team player"!

The idealists are not interested in self-aggrandizement, but they seem never to get what they really want : the resources to do the job better than it is being done. Idealists are not interested in personal gain. All they want is more and better opportunities to serve the NWS and, more to the point, the public. If the NWS managers ever truly grasped the potential value of the talent and dedication they already have in the organization, it would be the start of a Renaissance in the NWS! I'm not holding my breath, though.

Recognition of the role of management

It bothers me a lot that NWS management seems to be unaware of the role of management in any organization ... to facilitate the efforts of the people engaged in doing productive work. Management, is never productive work. Its only meaningful role is to make it possible for those engaged in truly productive tasks to be successful: that is, the forecasters. Rather than serving the forecasters, NWS management is infected with the absurd notion that the forecasters should be working for them!

Most NWS managers believe they're doing the right things, of course. They think what they are doing is just what is needed. The resolution to this apparent paradox is obvious .... to use a phrase I heard from a friend "Where you stand on some issue depends on where you sit." The meaning in this context should be clear: NWS managers may think they know how to do their jobs, but most of them haven't a clue. Those idealists sitting in forecaster positions will tell you they're not getting the support they need to do the best possible job of producing what the organization is tasked to produce: weather forecasts and warnings.

NWS management is generally dominated by hierarchical, top-down thinking. Is it a coincidence that so many NWS managers are ex-military officers? I don't think so. It would be wrong to say that military officers are all the same, but many of them are plagued with the inability to realize that civilians don't necessarily respond well to "orders" from their management, especially when those managers typically have had little or no experience in doing the actual job that they are managing.

Recognition of what it takes to forecast

This brings up another point: by now there is a long history of NWS management attempting to introduce technology into the system, ostensibly to make forecasting more successful. The success of those introduced technologies is pretty minimal. In spite of being long in the development phase (and typically way over budget), the systems as introduced in the field have consistently been clunky, unreliable, and incapable of doing the tasks that forecasters need done. I've written a paper on the subject of interactive workstations as introduced by the system [Doswell, C.A. III, 1992: Forecaster workstation design: Issues and concepts. Wea. Forecasting, 7, 398-407. ]. The problems with NWS workstations as introduced in the field have been so huge as to threaten scandals ... except that the field personnel have consistently managed to make them work despite all their myriad flaws!

And that reward is ...

I come then, to the reward that inept NWS management gives to those dedicated field personnel who have bailed them out of one potential management disaster after another: that reward is ... more of the same shit!

Meanwhile, more and better information has come to be readily available on the World-Wide Web over the Internet than is generally available in NWS offices! Technological innovation in the NWS continues at a snail's pace in comparison to that outside of the NWS, largely as a result of inept management.

In effect, the idealism and hard work of the field forecaster to make a success out of the garbage that is given to them ... winds up making their management look successful! The managers naturally believe that their success is the result of their management skills and deep knowledge of what is needed in the field. Yet the reality is precisely the opposite of that! What happens then, is that the same blind, stupid policies that led to one failure are perpetuated into the next round.

AFOS was a disaster when it was first introduced into field operations. It barely worked at all, and represented a monumental rip-off by the contractor, perpetrated not only on NWS forecasters but on the American public. It was field forecasters who figured out how to make it work anyway, and not coincidentally, began to take advantage of its limited programming capabilities to do things that forecasters actually needed, but which were never incorporated into the system. By the end of its operational lifetime, it was still a miserable system, but forecasters had learned how to exploit it to serve their needs and it was working reasonably well.

NWS management was compelled to replace AFOS as its technology was already obsolete by the time it became operational. The next system, part of the so-called "modernization" of the NWS, was going to fix everything, in management's pea brains. For someone watching these developments, it was obvious that the next system (AWIPS) was destined to follow down the same road as AFOS. I called it "AFOS, in color" years ago! (AFOS was not a color system, but AWIPS was going to be.). History has indeed repeated itself, and AWIPS has fulfilled those predictions. Given that NWS management learned nothing from AFOS, what reason was there to believe that AWIPS would turn out any differently? AWIPS is clunky, obsolete the day it was introduced, took too many years to complete, and way over budget, but is incapable of doing many tasks that forecasters need, etc. We have come full circle. AFOS, in color, indeed.

Like AFOS, I'm sure that various management teams and individual managers have been given awards for their "efforts" on behalf of AWIPS. NWS awards are often given to those who don't deserve them. The people that truly deserve awards ... the forecasters who will have to make this piece of shit work somehow to serve their needs ... will not get them. All they'll get is the same old story, the same old song and dance, once again (with apologies to Aerosmith!).

As part of that long history of screwed-up management of new technology, much forecaster-friendly software has been developed by forecasters on their own time (e.g., SHARP, PCGRIDDS, ADAP, etc.). This effort has never received the recognition it deserves but simply reflects forecaster determination to have better tools for doing their job. If management can't provide those tools, forecasters have developed them for themselves.

Trapped by idealism

The fact is that NWS forecasters (and their supporting workers) who remain idealists are trapped by it. While they may be able to hold their heads up and take considerable pride in what they've been able to accomplish in spite of the obstacles and harassment of their management, the fact is that their operational success is seen by their managers as confirming the very policies that are making their job so difficult. By succeeding and making the shit that rolls downhill into successful operations, they wind up making those bonehead managers look good! The only way to make it obvious how inept their management is would be for those forecasters to fail at their jobs. But their idealism simply won't let them fail, if failure can possibly be avoided. Their sense of obligation to the public forces them to do whatever it takes to make a silk purse out of the sow's ear they get to work with ... and they often figure out how to do just that. It's interesting to think about what forecasters might be able to accomplish if they didn't have to expend most of their energy simply making up for the blunders and incompetence of their management, who continue to think (quite erroneously) that they know what's best for forecasters!

What a bizarre, topsy-turvy situation we are in ... the idealism that salvages appearances for the managers can be interpreted to justify whatever dumb decisions those managers make. There is no escape for an idealist. With time, of course, many idealists give up and become cynics (a disillusioned idealist). Becoming a cynic and giving up the fight, ironically, transforms an idealist into the very thing s/he despises the most. When the idealist becomes a cynic, s/he is no longer solving problems ... rather, s/he has become part of the problem for the remaining idealists. Such a disillusioned person is, of course, prime management material!!

Of some considerable interest to me is the recent discovery (tipped off by some colleagues from the Meteorological Services of Canada at a recent Canadian Forecaster's Forum) of a U.S. Navy officer and ship commander who has demonstrated the importance of "grassroots leadership" -- precisely the sort that I'm advocating. He is D. Michael Abrashoff and is featured in an article here (which will probably go out of date soon). See here for how to obtain his new book: It's Your Ship. What's fascinating to me is that even in a military organization as tightly hierarchical as a Navy ship of war, the critical importance of "grassroots leadership" is clear, and the proof is in the results! If NWS management could ever become committed to actual seeing the operation of their organization through the eyes of the working, productive staff, major miracles of efficiency, quality, and economy could be wrought. There is always hope, so don't give in to cynicism, folks!

So what's my point?

Going off on yet another rant seems more or less self-indulgent and I have to admit that the cathartic aspect of getting this off my chest is part of my motivation. However, I also want to make sure that the idealists that remain in the NWS understand that at least some of us are aware of your determination and integrity. I appreciate that very much, and I thank you for not giving up your ideals in the face of multiple egregious assaults on them. Please, don't ever let go of those ideals, because to do so is to become what you despise. I respect and admire your courage and your persistence. The NWS needs you desperately, whether or not they realize it.

I know there are some good managers out there, but they're a persecuted minority, as well. For the few NWS managers out there who are trying their best to make the system work on behalf of the forecasters by actually listening to forecasters and basing your decisions on their input, I also want to recognize your efforts. If you think that what I'm saying doesn't apply to you ... I hope you're right. If so, I salute you.

But managers need to be aware that most NWS managers believe they're doing the right things, yet are most assuredly not doing so. If you came from the field before going into management, be aware of the dreaded key phrase: "When I was working the forecast desk, I didn't see the big picture!" If you've ever said or thought that, then whether you realize it or not, you've sold out. There is no "big picture" ... from the point of view of the productive work of the NWS, there is only the local picture that describes what is going on at the forecaster level. What you think you see as the "big picture" is lies and deception ... politics and a struggle for power, not service to the public. Everything else should be subordinate to the local picture ... forecasting (and work that supports it) is the only productive activity of the NWS! You should consider your management job to be that of working for the forecasters and their support team, not the other way around. Any other attitude means you're part of why I wrote this. Self-deception within NWS management is rampant, right up to the top ... and things have been this way for quite some time. I'm not saying that NWS managers are evil people. Rather, I'm saying they're clueless, and clueless people typically are unaware that they're clueless (This has been shown in serious studies, by the way!).

Sadly, the moral atmosphere of the NWS is polluted by the threat of reprisals for speaking out about operational problems within the NWS. It's become so pervasive that threats aren't even necessary, anymore. The forecasters muzzle themselves, in fear of recriminations for speaking the truth as they see it. They fear being honest when someone asks their opinion ... I've seen it many times in my interactions with forecasters. The NWS is not a healthy system and its management needs to do some serious self-examination. If they don't like what I'm saying, they should consider why they're unhappy with me! What's my motivation? Do I want the NWS to fail? Think about it.

[There was] a sort of tradition among military men ... implying that a properly signed written order from a superior officer to do a certain thing carried with it not only the duty of doing it, but also the capacity to do it, which I imagine may be a very stimulating idea for one engaged in battle though of doubtful value in scientific research.

Unfortunately Nature does not yield her secrets in response to orders ...

-- Thomas C. Mendenhall, physicist

as of 10 Feb 2003


I'm overwhelmed by the positive comments I'm receiving. I'm going to quit adding to these wonderful comments, as I'm becoming embarrassed by it all, but I still appreciate any feedback, positive or negative. Please continue to let me know what you think.

Just wanted to tell you that I sent our staff (sans management) your latest effort. Everyone I've spoken to (maybe half the office?) pretty much said it was spot on. One ET here went as far as to print it out to take it home with him...he asked me why you didn't consider the ET/support side of the forecast office? Overall, it looks like your opinions are echoed by those of us mired in a truly dysfunctional office.

My response: I doubt that your office is dramatically different from most. As for not taking the side of the ETs .. I don't really know anything about the ET side of things.

I am a meteorologist in ___ who got off the desk nearly 10 years ago and have been doing science in support of policy (and in support of Operations on my own time - more on this in a moment). It was scary how many of your comments fit into MSC (Meteorological Service of Canada) management as well. I understand you are going to a "Forum for Forecasters" in Victoria in February, I won't be there but I hope you will make a lot of your points there that you made in the article.

My response Those points are not embedded in the PowerPoint, but I think I can see fit to include them in the talk, nevertheless!

Anyway, the point of this e-mail was to thank you for saying what you did and encourage you to repeat it in February in Victoria but replace NWS with MSC as it is the same philosophy and the reason we are in so much trouble, if you are concerned with giving the public the best possible forecast.

My response The problems I have described for the NWS are actually valid in many other situations than just the US public weather sector.

A colleague of mine recently sent me your terrific post on idealism in the NWS.. and I just wanted to say your words really struck a chord with me and many of us in the Canadian weather service (MSC).   It is amazing (and distressing) how similar our problems are up here north of the border. Our problems are further exacerbated by the ridiculous cuts our service has had to endure over the past decade.. yet MSC forecasters continue to do their best in an increasingly impossible environment to do so.  

I'm sure you've heard by now that our weather service is undergoing yet another round of "consolidation" .. evidently to make our organization stronger and more sustainable .. which has been the basis for the last 10 years of cuts! In rationalizing this latest round of consolidation, our minister emphasized the importance of technology such as supercomputers, satellite and Doppler radar to the weather service. He didn't acknowledge anything about the important role of the human forecaster in the equation!  They still don't get it!    

Anyways, I just wanted to commend you on your well written article. I hope you can make some of those excellent points at the upcoming Forcaster's Forum in Victoria, B.C next month, which I will also be attending.  

My response You're the third Canadian to e-mail me in the past couple of days ... apparently, my essay has been making the rounds. I'm happy to hear that I said it right but, of course, I'm sad to see the gradual dismantling of the formerly outstanding service provided to the citizens of Canada by some very fine people. I've watched it happen and feel that comparable events are likely in the U.S., eventually. In fact, I think that particular juggernaut is already rolling.

Myself and a few co-workers enjoyed your essay, 'On the rewards for idealism in the National Weather Service.' You hit the nail on the head ... at least for the ___ office!

My response Based on the early returns, it seems my comments apply to many locations. As I was pretty certain they did.

Right off I want to ask that you not pass on my email address or identity since I am still working as an electronics technician ... the sometimes necessary evil!

My response Of course I'll protect your identity. I appreciate your situation ...

You are right on target with your discussion on NWS management on each of your points, although I believe the point of management being former military needs to be expanded upon.

Many ET's are former military, and I suspect those in management that are former military were once as idealistic as any other, but became cynics due to a bad managers. All it takes is one manager (I won't call them leaders) that decides a top-down, micro-managing, CYA style is the way to manage. Many other managers then learn quickly this is the way to go.

Quite often perspective from ET's is never considered, much less asked for, although we generally are the ones who have to determine why something may not be working, with help from forecasters as to how they want it to work.

My response There is, of course, a reason for my not discussing the ET situation: since I never worked as an ET, I really know nothing about it. That NWS management is insensitive to your concerns and treats you badly is, unfortunately, not very surprising.

I have to respond to your note and particularly the comment that "forecasting is the only productive activity of the NWS" and I can assume that I could substitute any other weather service in the world. I sincerely respect you for your forecasting capability, your ability to impart science and your ability to challenge me as a forecaster and trainer. I have enjoyed and appreciated our interaction over the years.

I am surprised by your note which places the forecasters as the only important group in the weather service.

Our weather service like most, is involved in monitoring, data archive and access, science activities, service delivery and outreach as well as forecasting.

My response I'm delighted to have your comments! O.K. - but *those* activities are also *in support of* forecasting! If you weren't forecasting, none of these other tasks would be very meaningful. Perhaps it's somewhat hyperbolic to say forecasting is the ONLY productive activity, but I'm not likely to back off very much from that position. Forecasting is what weather services are in business to do. Virtually everything else that people in a forecasting organization do is supposed to *support* the forecasting end: management, data acquisition, dissemination, and even outreach. This does NOT mean that forecasting is the only activity of value ... far from it ... but management generally acts as if THEY are what's important within the system and apparently put little real value on what forecasters have to say about their needs. They, and all these other activities are meaningless if they fail to be supportive of the forecasting.

As someone recently promoted into NWS management (I was a WFO lead forecaster just __ ago) I applaud you for your blunt commentary on the state of the NWS in your recent Internet posting entitled, "On the rewards for idealism in the National Weather Service". It's nice to see someone with clout stand up for field forecasters.

My response You flatter me to assert that I have clout, but I always appreciate feedback from folks "in the trenches" who think I'm more or less on the right track. Thank you.

I think that one of my biggest challenges will be to keep from being assimilated into the NWS management culture. As an effort to avoid this, I have printed out your posting and now keep it in my top desk drawer for easy access every time I think that I can see the "big picture".

My response Sounds like a good plan ...

I have been a NWS lead forecaster for the last __ years at NWS ___. Your article "On the rewards for idealism in the NWS" is right on the money.

You summarize the frustration and anger we feel. Forecasters have had their hands tied by management that does not have a clue as to what kind of support we really need in the field. We support them, they do not support us. And we continue to cover their flaws because we are professionals. ...<snip>...

I won't even bother mentioning other abysmal failures such as WWA software, or policy decisions that fly in the face of common sense. ...<snip>...

At any rate, I have forwarded this to several other forecasters, who will be overjoyed to see that there others out there who actually realize what is happening to the NWS.

My response Thanks for the positive feedback ... it's nice to know when people appreciate what you're doing, and so I can empathize with your situation ... which is one of my reasons for writing the article in the first place. *I* can speak out, where perhaps most of you feel you can't. I don't know if the clueless ones will EVER understand how clueless they are, but I feel compelled to at least TRY to call it to their attention.

I'm a Lead Forecaster at WFO ___. Upon reading your "Idealism" paper, my reactions ranged from frequent moments of cheering to periodic bouts of absolute silence (i.e. I was rendered speechless, which I might add is very difficult to do). I can't even begin to thank you enough for your honest, accurate and candid analysis of the current state of NWS culture!!! Everything in your paper is the terrible, raw truth (I have the stress headaches to prove it). I deeply believe in the NWS mission. Everything we do ("we" meaning anyone who is employed by the NWS, including management) must be for the fulfillment of that mission! In the purest sense, this means that the mission begins with the forecast process, revolves around the forecast process, and is ultimately fulfilled through the forecast process. Any other activity should be solely in support of our mission (a.k.a. the forecast process...a.k.a.serving the public). We are here to serve the public...PERIOD!!! If it weren't for them, we would not be here!! NWS management needs to lose the egos and remember why we are all here!

From the bottom of my heavy heart, I thank you Chuck. You are a champion for all NWS operational forecasters!

My response Wow! It's inspirational to know that I've been able to speak on your behalf. Thank *you* for taking the time to respond ... I continue to hope that somehow we can turn things around for you all. Hope is what keeps cynicism at bay, after all.

As a senior Meteorologist in ___, I can't tell you how much I appreciated your article. In recent years, I've fought a losing battle in my office W.R.T. our reputation as a severe weather warning machine (i.e. carpet bombing with warnings) with little regard to false alarms. From the day I arrived on station, all I heard from forecasters was that "you'd better have a warning out"... "you can never have too many headlines in this office", etc, etc.

In working my way up to Senior Forecaster, it was impressed upon me that the most difficult decisions are often times the "No War" decisions. And I take great pride in using sound meteorological reasoning in the issuance of not only severe weather warnings, but all of my other products.

Not only was I labeled as "not an ideal severe weather team player" in my performance rating, but my boss had the audacity to tell me to my face that I was "disruptive" to the status quo in our office. Coincidentally, in the __ years since I took that stance in the office, ___'s warning verification has improved dramatically, with the reduction in F.A.R. for severe thunderstorm warnings showing the biggest improvement. Did I hear any commendation or appreciation from my managers? Absolutely NOT! I'm still fighting my way out of the hole that my efforts dug for me for not simply "playing along".

My response Ouch! Your story is not unique, unfortunately. It probably is little or no consolation that I have heard similar stories from NWS forecasters I've known.

Your article means a lot to me, and I will continue to refer to it regularly, as I fight the daily battle of maintaining my integrity as a forecaster.

Thanks so much!!!!

My response Thank YOU for taking the time to let me know my essay has been of meaning for you. Keep the faith and never give up on those ideals! I'm proud of you and those like you and wish I could do more to help you all.

Thank you for your support of operational forecasters! I really appreciate that you "stand" up for us in the field. The scary thing is that many, if not all, of the operational forecasters appreciate what you say, yet most of the higher-level management does not. At any rate, your words give me support at times when I get extremely frustrated.

My response It makes a difference for ME to hear such things from field forecasters. It brightens MY day. Thank *you* for being the professionals that you are. As for management, I said it in my NOAA Management rant (recently updated)... there are two NWSs: the troops in the field and the bureaucrats. It was not much trouble for me to choose with which of those two groups I wanted to associate.