Why It Won't Work

Why It Is Impossible To Have Free And Open Public Involvement In Government Operations

[And why we should strive for it, anyway]

 Although I grew up as a city kid, I've spent much of my adult life associating with ranchers, farmers, loggers, foresters, miners, hunters, and other residents of rural areas and country towns. I like a lot of these people, and they've liked me - up to a point, that is. But there's always been a major handicap to our friendship, because (on or off the job, and now even in retirement) they can't forget that I'm FROM THE GOVERNMENT. In the last fifty-five years, I don't think I can honestly say that I've met one person in any of those categories that wasn't (at best) suspicious of all things GOVERNMENT, or that (at worst) didn't despise all things GOVERNMENT. If an individual government employee is known and liked, there can sometimes develop within relationships a sort of short-term amnesia, in which it is "forgotten" for awhile that consorting with the enemy is occurring. Unfortunately, it is always short-term; at some point, the individual cannot be considered outside of the machine for which he or she is a cog. Not a very good basis for deep, longterm relationships.

Am I paranoid? No, I don't think so. Are they? Sometimes - certainly there is something like that in the out-of-control HATE for all things "government" that one often runs into in rural communities. But in their feelings of dislike and distrust, they are often justified. There is one thing about Government that will cause any thinking person to distrust:


To put it in a little longer form:


From my own 30+ years in Government, let me give you some examples to illustrate why this is true:

(1) I and my colleagues representing about a dozen different Government entities worked for almost ten years developing a plan for preserving and rehabilitating the endangered California Condor. We had succeeded in convincing most of our most ardent critics that our plans were necessary and appropriate, and we had a plan of attack approved by the myriad of agencies and organizations that needed to sign off on it.

A political appointee in Washington, D. C. decided - after talking to three biologists who had never worked with condors and who had not been part of the decision-making process - that the whole project was "going too slowly." He had enough political clout that Fish and Wildlife Service went along with him, despite protests by all the other government agencies involved and by the interested public. Because of the controversy, the condor recovery program came to a halt for almost two years while some level of understanding and cooperation was re-established.

(2) The manager of a wildlife refuge in eastern Washington determined that cattle grazing that was occurring on the refuge was detrimental to wildlife habitat. As the next level supervisor, I agreed with the manager's findings. However, we also agreed that making the grazing permittees remove their cattle immediately would be a real economic hardship for some of them, and also a real public relations nightmare for the refuge staff. The plan we ultimately came up with - which was approved by the Regional Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, two supervisory levels above me, and which was found at least "tolerable" by the cattle grazers, local environmentalists, and local elected officials - was that all cattle would be removed from the wildlife refuge within the following three years. Immediate gains were made for the refuge, because half the permittees were able to remove their cattle during the first season. Over half were gone within the first year, and the refuge staff were able to begin habitat rehabilitation work.

Then, as a result of nationwide legal action concerning various "incompatible" uses of national wildlife refuges, the Regional Director was ordered to remove the remainder of the livestock immediately. To his credit, the Regional Director argued valiantly for honoring our agreement - and took it upon himself to try to personally explain to refuge neighbors and local elected officials what was happening - but to no avail. Essentially overnight, it had gone from cooperative problem resolution to a "legal matter."

(3) A refuge manager in eastern Oregon was concerned that wildlife was not being adequately protected on the refuge because there was too much public use. He proposed developing a new refuge management plan, to be done over several years' time, with many opportunities for public involvement. My boss, and his boss the Regional Director, approved the concept. There were many controversies - because the area was very popular for fishing, boating, and hunting, as well as wildlife watching - and the manager (wisely, I think) extended the planning process an extra year, to be sure that all issues were fully aired and discussed. When a plan was finally drafted, even some of those people that we thought would be hardest to satisfy, were postively excited about the proposed managment changes.

At that point, my supervisor refused to sign off on the new plan, because he personally didn't like some of the proposed management changes. He didn't officially disapprove of the plan; he just failed to take action on it. Several years later, nothing on the refuge had changed.

(4) After several years of great controversy and ill-will between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the people living near a wildlife area in southeastern Oregon, an Environmental Impact Statement and management plan were developed based on sound science and extensive public involvement. [That isn't to say that everybody local loved the plan - they didn't - but the plan had clear integrity, and the Government had made a significant effort to consider both local and national concerns in its formulation.]

Within a year of the plan's approval, most of those Fish and Wildlife Service people who had worked directly in the planning process had retired or moved to other refuges [something that happens regularly throughout government]. A new manager didn't like the plan, essentially shelved it, and immediately opened up old controversies that had just be "resolved."

*   *   *

I need to make it clear that, while I could cite dozens of examples like the ones above, they are not the norm. There are also many examples of excellent decision-making, of sincere problem-solving, and of inspired mutual cooperation. The good examples don't change my basic premise: there are certain inherent attributes of the Government system that render uncertain the results of any decision-making process.

If that is the case, what do we do about it?


If your only reasons for seeking public involvement in your operations are (a) because it is a requirement of your agency, and/or (b) it will help you get what you want, then I recommend you don't spend a whole lot of time with the public. Do the minimum, and take the flak. You'll probably be transferring to another assignment in a year or two, so it won't be your problem for long. Besides, you'll be carrying on a long-term tradition of government arrogance, and you'll give the local folks the pleasure of being able to say once more that "we knew all along that the government didn't care what we though."

On the other hand, if you believe - or would like to believe - that:

  • The public has a right to have a say in what their government does
  • The public might really have something worthwhile to say that would be helpful to you and to your mission
  • It really would be nice to help improve public perception of Government
  • It really would be nice to improve not just the perception, but the actual workings of Government
  • It would be nice to leave your successor with a friendly local populace, and with no festering sores that require first aid the first moment she or he steps in the doorway

Then there are some ways to address the subject.


During the years I was coordinating national wildlife refuge operations in the Pacific Northwest, I would often tell the on-site refuge managers that they should let their employees do the work on the refuges, while they drank coffee with the local folks. This usually got a positive outward response [good joke, right?], but most of them were clearly uneasy with the idea, even as a joke. After all, why would they want to sit in a local cafe while their staffs were out with the wildlife, doing the really important work? And why would they want to reinforce the already prevalent local notion that sitting around drinking coffee is all government people did, anyway?

But I wasn't joking with them. The coffee drinking itself may sometimes be symbolic, but it is a symbol for two important concepts:

  • The very best and most meaningful public involvement is the ongoing, daily, informal, grassroots type that occurs before some crisis or new program thrust forces us to "go public."
  • The most "bullet-proof" of government actions [the ones most likely to achieve the best results, and to be most satisfactory to all parties] are those that have developed solidly over time, and that don't draw attention to themselves because of controversy or a high profile.

Problems may occasionally appear "out of the blue," but in the majority of cases, the need for change or for a new action develops over time. If you have been keeping in touch with your publics [those with an interest in what you and your agency are doing] on an informal, friendly, sharing basis, you will have had time to (1) clarify your own thinking, (2) get some free early input, (3) get people used to the idea of change, and (4) get some early signals as to what reaction you would get if you actually got around to making change. If you sense opposition or controversy during this daily interchange, you can prepare yourself to put forth the proposal in the least upsetting way. Perhaps you remove the controversy before it "officially" enters the proceedings. If you don't sense any opposition, great. Your "public involvement" may never have to reach the formal stage.

There is an important caveat to this "public involvement over coffee:" you must be sure that you are "drinking" with all your publics. You don't want to leave the impression that one group has more influence with you than any other group. Your issue has no hope of staying a non-issue if any group feels you bypassed or short-changed them. So, keep in touch with everybody - which, of course, is impossible, but be sure to spread your interactions as much as you can.


Here's a paradox for you. The best way to assure that your public involvement efforts don't fall victim to some strange government reversal is to keep the higher-level bosses and congressional types completely out of the process. On the other hand, leaving those types out almost guarantees some kind of snafu somewhere down the road. It's the proverbial "damned if you do, and damned if you don't."

During my last several years with the government, I had a supervisor who [in my opinion] had all of the worst traits a boss could manifest relative to dealing with the public. He didn't believe in involving the public until he was forced to; he didn't understand the concepts of interacting with the public; he didn't believe that anybody but him had ever had a good idea; and he was deathly afraid of getting his bosses or elected officials involved in his operations. Probably you can understand why I was often reticent to let him in on some of the things that I and the wildlife refuges managers were discussing. I proved over and over again that letting him in guaranteed unnecessary confusions. On the other hand [and here's that paradox], when I didn't keep him informed and involved, I was just courting trouble - and trouble was quick to appear just as soon as our "coffee diplomacy" showed the slightest signs of a breakdown.

The answer: pray for an enlightened and courageous boss. Unfortunately, there still aren't many of those in government (or out of government!), so you may just have to pray that enlightenment will continue to spread while you treat your bosses and those elected officials as what they are: additional "publics." Use "coffee diplomacy" on them just as you do on the city council or the Audubon Society, with the goal of keeping all your issues non-issues. If they aren't threatened by what you're proposing, your chances of maintaining government integrity through and beyond the planning process are greatly increased.


No question, sometimes you will be forced to go beyond "coffee diplomacy." You still have many options on how you formalize your public participation. Your goals are still the same: make sure everybody understands what you're trying to do, and make sure you have the best input possible to assure that your plan is the right one. The most successful methods - and those least likely to get out of control and off-target - are still likely to be up close and personal - workshops, field trips, discussion groups, etc. - not public hearings and major media events. Problems are solved one-on-one, two-on-two, etc; public hearings are designed for giving opinions and making points.

When suddenly forced into a public situation, government agencies usually opt for formal public hearings and massive environmental statements. Sometimes this comes about because the agency people really believe that the public likes to deal on such a level [which I doubt is true, most of the time]. Sometimes it seems an easy, brainless, minimally responsive way to "get it over with." Sometimes, the administrators truly believe that they are legally required to use these ultra-formal methods, particularly if what they intend to do could be construed as a "major government action." But at no level of government have I seen a hard and fast definition of "major." In practice, "major" is the description used by parties who are not satisfied that their concerns are being addressed by the government. Granted that some proposals are so big that the "major" label is obvious and inevitable, good groundwork in "coffee diplomacy" and small group interactions can reduce the term to endangered species status in most government operations.


If an otherwise good public participation process is threatened by agency politics or the actions of elected officials, success or failure need not rest solely on your shoulders. If your "coffee diplomacy" and other interaction has really worked, then you have a well-informed group of people who share with you the ownership of project or problem. Don't be bashful about asking them to defend the plan and the process before your bosses or their elected representatives. Sad to say, they probably have more pull with your boss than you do.

Something that is often overlooked is that elected officials are one of your "publics." You may not deal directly with the senator very often, but you can cultivate good relationships with the senator's staff. They are as near as your phone, and often near enough to visit your office and participate in workshops and meetings. While it may seem that some elected officials spend their whole careers looking for problems and grandstanding, their staffs - regardless of political party - are usually trying just as hard to keep the elected ones out of controversy, unless the controversy is clearly something their constituents want. If their publics want what you want, their bosses are not likely to be a problem to you, and they may be willing to intervene with your bosses.

When I began in government, it was taboo for a project leader or mid-level manager to deal directly with the offices of elected officials. Part of the taboo was based on good reasoning, or at least on good intentions. On major policy issues, an agency should be speaking with one authoritative voice, and that should always be one of the high-level bosses. Also, since agency budgets are finite, project leaders successfully lobbying for their own money needs probably end up interfering with overall agency needs and priorities. Clearly, we aren't talking here about agency mission or pork-barreling. We are talking about mutual cooperation between the government and the public in clearly-defined areas of interest. Such communication is essential for government integrity and responsiveness.


"Good" government employees are sometimes perceived by the agency as those who will defend the organization, no matter how stupid or irresponsible the agency's actions may be. If you currently feel that kind of allegiance to your employer, either think about changing your philosophy or else resign yourself to being a continuing part of the problem that this essay addresses.

If you had good public participation going, and were sabotaged by "the government" in a way similar to those described at the top of this page, I strongly suggest that you tell your constituents exactly what happened. This may be perceived by your employer as being disloyal , but you're the one who will continue to deal with your publics, and you're the one whose credibility is on the line. The first step toward better overall government relations is separating the individual government workers from the system, of showing that - while the system has glitches - the individuals themselves have integrity and are trying to do things right. It's doubtful that your unwillingness to be the goat will cost you your job, and it's likely that your honest stance will reap dividends for you and your successors.

Let me clarify: we're not talking about you complaining because you didn't "get your way." We all have bosses, and the bosses often don't agree with us. We can't expect all of our proposals to get adopted. This discussion is limited to those cases in which:

  • It was your responsibility to develop a plan or make a change, and you were doing your job.   
  • You had done all your own homework, and knew what was likely to be acceptable to your agency.
  • You had gone to the public in good faith, and had worked with them to develop the best plan or solution possible.
  • You had kept in touch with your bosses throughout the process, and had no inkling that your and the publics' efforts would be disregarded.

Maybe you can't trust "government," but the public should be able to trust the government's representatives. The country can't afford the current state of affairs.

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