Did You Know? District structure and governance

As part of a six-month series on district operations, the Did You Know? monthly feature in eResource will highlight chapters of the NACD District Outlook Task Force report: “Blueprint for Locally-Led Conservation – A Strategy for District Success and Sustainability” (available here on our website). This month’s chapter tackles structure and governance.

Considerations for Districts

A healthy conservation district structure requires a balanced approach to funding, governance, and authorities outlined in their state’s statutes. District leadership should never be delegated. Each conservation district must assume the lead role in resource assessments and conservation delivery within the district while regularly engaging additional partners in the locally-led process to identify, discuss, and assess resource needs of the district. It is essential that districts use their resource assessments to make decisions on the use of limited personnel, program, and financial resources.

New technologies are needed for conservation delivery. Districts need to make ongoing technology investments to best communicate with the public, service landowners, implement programs, design and install conservation practices, obtain water quality and natural resource data, maintain public records, and more.  In 2015, NRCS launched Conservation Client Gateway, a secure online portal that lets individual landowners and land managers track their payments, request assistance, sign documents and request conservation assistance anytime, anywhere. Landowners may expect the same type of technology from districts to streamline services for non-federal conservation programs.

Major demographic shifts include not only the retirement of baby boomers, but the increased turnover of highly skilled mid-career employees and the increased difficulties of recruiting, developing, and retaining younger workers. These demographic shifts, combined with the explosion of technical, scientific, and managerial knowledge in the workplace, mean that when people leave conservation districts and partnering agencies, they are taking with them critical knowledge that is important to the future of conservation district and NRCS field offices. Districts also need specialized and trained technical staff. Many districts have limited resources, which makes hiring staff and securing resources to implement practices difficult.

Recommendations for Districts:

District Board Leadership must review their essential services and conduct a self-assessment to determine overall performance. A district may request their state conservation agency, Extension Service, and/or other entity to assist with the assessment. Such an assessment should include these areas:

District Board Leadership

  • Analyze the broad landscape and policy changes that impact water quality.
  • Ensure greater specificity and accountability and tie to funding strategies.
  • Track program and environmental progress on a regular basis.
  • Adapt to new technology and scientific findings.
  • Maximize opportunities for stakeholder involvement.
  • Reexamine roles and responsibilities of partners periodically.

District Capacity and Essential Services

Districts must review their essential services and conduct a self-assessment to determine overall performance. A district may request their state conservation agency/commission, Extension Service and/or other entity to conduct an assessment on the district’s behalf. Services that are essential to operate a local conservation district program include, but are not limited to:

  • Administration: (1) an annual work plan, (2) fiscal accountability, (3) reporting, (4) professional development, (5) management of board and staff
  • Technical: (1) skill and ability to perform resource assessments, (2) survey, (3) design and construction of conservation practice, (4) oversight
  • Governance: (1) strategic planning, (2) establishing board policy, (3) accountability
  • Information, Education and Outreach: (1) landowner awareness of district programs and conservation program opportunities to protect and enhance soil and water resources, (2) media relations, (3) community relations
  • Regulatory: (1) facilitate process for impacted landowner, (2) regulatory requirements
  • Projects/Programs: (1) implementation of local, state and federal programs as required and/or outlined as a district priority
  • Monitoring/Data Collection: (1) baseline understanding of resource conditions or trends
  • Technology: (1) technology infrastructure that allows for mobile workstations, (2) GIS capability of both software and expertise, (3) technology to enhance district operations

Workforce Succession Planning and Transfer of Knowledge

  • District boards need to make a concerted effort to capture and impart the institutional knowledge within its ranks before board and staff transition.
  • District board should provide opportunities for less experienced staff members to be paired up with a veteran staff, staff from other districts, or appropriate partners, to transfer knowledge and provide hands-on experience in working with programs and servicing the public.
  • District should provide opportunities for new board members to receive training and support by veteran board members, board members from other districts, or appropriate partners to transfer knowledge, and provide hands-on experience in working with programs and servicing the public.
  • Succession strategies for districts include transitional training, job shadowing, exit interviews, mentoring programs and internships.

District Shared Services and Consolidation of Services

  • Districts should consider shared services and/or consolidation of services with neighboring districts and partners to invest in local capacity to efficiently accelerate conservation projects and practices. Shared services could be considered for various district operations including financial, staffing, equipment, technology and operational functions of a district. Shared district services could be implemented through various agreements that may require statutory changes.
  • Districts should consider examples of sharing services such as districts establishing joint power agreements, MOU agreements, cooperative agreements and contracts.
  • Districts should review their statutes to understand the voluntary consolidation process for districts to enhance operations.

District Board Qualifications

  • The district board should be composed of highly qualified officials from diverse backgrounds and skills; reflect the changing population and demographics of the district and have the required expertise and skills to provide better district governance.
  • The district should identify strengths of current board members and set priorities for qualities and characteristics new board members should possess.
  • Districts should consider the following factors for reviewing board performance: (1) Community Connections (civic, legislative, landowners, nonprofits, etc.), (2) Leadership (visionary, commitment to mission, public service, willingness to serve etc.), and (3) Expertise (public relations, public service, strategic planning, management, technology etc.)
Disclaimer: Did You Know? recommendations and observations may not apply to all states. NACD’s DO/MS Committee requests your understanding. We also invite you to find out what your state and local laws and policies say about any particular item.

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