Building Public Decisions

In the early 1990s a few of us — Hanna Cortner, Maggie Shannon, Larry Davis and a couple of us in the Intermountain Region — nudged the Forest Service toward an approach we called “Building Public Decisions”. Today we might call such adaptive co-management or collaborative stewardship, or ??.

In 1993 I ran a little thing by my Eco-Watch network titled Leadership and a Sustainable Future. In my intro to the post, I said, “Jeff Sirmon’s philosophy might be summarized as ‘building public decisions and public trust.’ It certainly seems like the right thing to do.”

In another Eco-Watch post that year — a book review of Dan Kemmis Community and the Politics of Place — I highlighted additional readings from contemporary ‘policy analysis’ arguing as Kemmis had for a return to the Jeffersonian engagement. These were:

The Power of Public Ideas, edited by Robert B. Reich, Harvard University Press, 1990.

Evidence, Argument, and Persuasion in the Policy Process, by Giandomenico Majone, Yale University Press, 1989. (Related to, and pushing forward, some of the ideas in The Power of Public Ideas.)

I said, “They are my personal favorites in policy analysis, synthesis, and governmental choice. It will be interesting to see what some of you think about these and the whole idea of shifting from federalism to more engaging, and participative, forms of government. To embrace Jeffersonian engagement (or public deliberation, as Robert Reich calls it) would transform ‘public involvement in decision making’ into ‘building public decisions.’”

Would that the Forest Service had embraced that future. But it didn’t. As usual there was (and is) a catch, Catch-22. (see also Catch-22 and Maladaptive Organizations).

For all its chatter about collaboration and collaborative stewardship or whatever buzz phrase of the moment, the Forest Service in its bureaucratic center simply doesn’t want to share enough power to collaborate. Look at the NFMA rule rewrite, for example. There is much discussion as to how the agency will collaborate to implement the “rule”, but when it comes to the rule itself, well that is another story.

On the Offical Planning Rule Website, the FS has thrown out a wee bit of material and said “comment by Feb. 16″. Then it has said that the comments are open to public inspection, but essentially blocked that effort by packing them into individual pdf files, rather than into a more easily accessible format. Finally it initiated a blog that isn’t really any more helpful than the comment gatherer.

Let me predict what will happen next. The FS will convene a few scattered meetings to gather yet more comments. Then it will issue a draft “rule.” Then it will defend that rule — a tweak on the 1982 rule — until Hell freezes over. 20 years from now, if any of us are still alive, we will be rehashing this once again—unless we’ve found better amusements.

I hope I’m wrong.


  1. Dave- Thanks for this great post! You have touched on many ideas that I suspect will be topics that we talk about for many posts. I especially appreciate your items from Forest Policy Forest Practice that were excellent, but may have faded in the memories of those who participated and many may not have had the chance to see..

    1) I particularly liked the reference to “The Chalice and the Blade.” Neither Jeff nor you explicitly mentioned that this book is a feminist refutation of the male hierarchical model. It made me wonder how far we have actually come in the past 30 years or so in terms of choosing alternatives to the hierarchical male-dominated system and culture. Has the male-dominated culture adapted to us as women have taken our place in the natural resource and environment related professions, or we to it? This might be an interesting post.

    2) What do you think a process to build public decisions in forest plans look like? To me it looks like a FACA committee but I may be lacking in imagination.

    3) I don’t think the Forest Service will necessarily behave as an entity with one worldview that will dominate the final decision on the planning rule. My experience is that what ultimately happens will be some FS ideas, some USDA ideas, that can clear EPA, CEQ and OMB with minimal levels of political capital expended, and that DOJ is willing to defend. Not to mention that it seems like just about everyone in the FS has different ideas of what a good rule will look like. I am looking forward to a particularly interesting ride with the different players this time. As Ric Rine said, “to go boldly..”

    4) At the risk of sounding defensive, the pdfs are just as difficult for insiders as the public. I think it’s a function of the contract requirements for the content analysis. I’ve had to deal with these before on another large project and also found it difficult.

    5) But about collaboration, your post made me wonder what is “real” collaboration and what would it look like? Do you need a formal collaborative group to collaborate? Does collaboration work as a one-shot deal, or is it really about building relationships through time? Can you do national level collaboration without some kind of formal collaborative group? If you disagree with the recommendations and don’t use them, was it still a collaborative process? If you use 75%, or 25% of the recommendations? These are all questions our academic colleagues may have studied, and they may want to weigh in.

  2. Sharon asks: “What do you think a process to build public decisions in forest plans look like?”

    I just re-read Section 6 of NFMA and am retreating, once again, to Behan’s “Time to Punt” recommendation. Unless the USFS can somehow weasel-word an “adaptive management “forest-relative” information system” into satisfying the NFMA law — an information system that is continuously updated as various decisons are made at various scales, each decision being tested against policy re: “policy drift” and “policy volatility” as per John’s recent post — then I don’t see much hope.

    I see a “forest plan” developed as per the spirit and intent of NFMA Section 6 to be this: Too many wicked problems wrapped into one forum. That is a recipe for disaster re: “building public decisions” (and public trust). Tidwell and “Dept. of Ag. uppers” need to call for oversight hearings on RPA/NFMA now!

    As to what “real collaboration” would look like, and Sharon’s questions:

    “Do you need a formal collaborative group to collaborate?”

    I don’t know. Once long ago on the Boise NF we got a forest planning group of collaborators together for a one-time meeting–to set a stage for followup meetings. The Boise NF sup, Dave Rittersbacher, with the RO representative in attendence (me), told the various groups that if they (as an independent/interdependent group) called subsequent meetings, that the FS would most-likely attend. He also told them that if any consensus were to develop (across a very wide distribution of interest groups, state and local gov interests, etc.) that the FS would find it hard to do something other than try to follow the lead of the group. The Sup. also made the forest plan ID team available to the group.

    A bunch of meetings followed over several months between draft and final forest plan. And a few small agreements were hammered out that eventually went into the forest plan. All participants thought that the expericence was good, but that it was too costly in terms of time and money to be repeated on each national forest, on each BLM unit, etc. So an all “lands approach” might make more sense. But at what scale? Certainly the scale of such an endeavor would have to be “regional” — i.e. above the administrative forest level, except perchance where such a unit was dispersed over an entire state, e.g. Nevada, Texas, ???

    We FS participants all had our “get out of FACA free cards” in our pockets and minds, trying not to get ensnared in any legal traps. Anybody remember the Denver-based OGC attorney who used to hand out the “Get out of FACA Free” cards? Callahan? Charles Lanahan? Anyway we never got sued over our attempt at collaboration and some long-standing relationships were built in the deliberative process.

    Back to Sharon’s questions: “If you disagree with the recommendations and don’t use them, was it still a collaborative process?” Of course. But any government administrator had better have good reasons for making a decision that is not in harmony with recommendations: e.g. broader social or policy reasons, legal reasons, etc., if said gov. administrator ever wanted to deal with those collaborators again.

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