When Policy Trends Toward Bullshit

Much government policy and some law resides in a realm philosopher Henry Frankfurt labels “bullshit”—in earlier times called humbug or balderdash. Much US Forest Service policy falls here too: regulation, manual and handbook directives. At least that’s the way I’ve seen it for a very long time.

Early in my Forest Service career, a colleague and I were conscripted into a week-long Forest Service Manual/Handbook writing exercise, specifically focused on the Forest Planning sections. A quick survey of the materials led us to conclude that our week had to be spent making sure that there was nothing in the FS planning manual that could possibly harm anyone. We knew that we could not ‘fix’ the manual, so we spent our week in a second-best endeavor.

A few years later a FS Planning Director asked a group of us for policy ideas at an economists conference. I suggested a bold move: Throw the Forest Service Manual and Handbook in the Potomac. I made the recommendation in the main because both the FS Planning and Economics Manual/Handbook materials were pretty much bullshit. Note that I immediately added that people should be able to swim out and retrieve portions of the policy manuals they deemed useful, and then upgrade them as necessary to help advise program development, project design and work generally. The point was to decommission the whole mess, and free the agency of both the manuals/handbooks and the mini-bureaucracy that oversaw them. Of course I didn’t believe that the FS would act on my suggestion, at least not then. But one can always hope. [Note: I wish there were electronic copies of earlier FS Manual/Handbook materials to point to for historical (hysterical?) purposes. ]

I suggested “tossing” the FS manual and handbook to both Chief Dombeck (via Chris Wood) and Chief Bosworth. Both were somewhat warm to the idea, but nothing happened. I’ve once again raised that issue with FS top brass, suggesting that collaborative adaptive governance can’t work if everybody shows up with several yards worth of “holy writ” that must be followed.

Later I called bullshit on the Forest Service’s initiative to tie planning (and pretty much all else) to environmental management systems—chronicled in my Forest Environmental Management Systems blog (Oct. 2005 – April 2007). That particular mess went away, with EMS rightfully retreating to a minor place (facilities and fleet management) in Forest Service administration. I’m sure my blogging did not influence the outcome. But at least I left a record, so that we might learn from the mistake.

Common wisdom says, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Let’s pause a moment and explore special characteristics of what we are digging through.

What is ‘bullshit’?
Before anyone gets too upset with my BS terminology, maybe we ought to delve into Frankfurt’s little book On Bullshit—an essay really, which you can read online. Frankfurt’s little book adorned a special shelf in my FS office bookshelves, accompanied by Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Something Happened, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and some other classics. Frankfurt begins On Bullshit with,

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. … In consequence we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.

Frankfurt attempts to tease out a ‘theory of bullshit’ for us. I’ll not bore you with all Frankfurt’s building blocks, but I at least we need to know that he distinguishes bullshit from lying, in part as follows:

The essence of bullshit is not that it is false, but that it is phony. … The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong. [But it does mean that they don’t quite ring true.]

How much FS policy falls in this realm? Politicians tend to create bullshit to pander—to curry favor. Bureaucrats create bullshit for very different reasons. Frankfurt says,

Bullshit is unavoidable when circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. … [This is] common in public life, where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.

Think about how Forest Service teams are put together, often without asking for volunteers and without too much regard for seeking out the most knowledgeable team members. It always seemed to my jaundiced eye that team members were selected to construct manual and handbook materials in the main because they were ‘good soldiers’, and particularly not ‘radicals’ who might rock the boat too much.

Why I’ve tried to stop the BS

I know that it is pretty much a fool’s quest, but I’ve always tried to get the Forest Service bureaucracy to ‘swing for the fences’ and pull itself up from the morass of its own policy, manuals and handbooks. But, like many American institutions the Forest Service will not take a hard look at itself. Maybe it’s due of fear. Maybe it is due to ennui—stuckness, lack of hope. Maybe it is something else. Maybe it is just because they don’t realize that bullshit might be outright harmful, even toxic to the organization.

This proves especially true when bullshit policy is brought into court, “for the record,” when people challenge federal actions, which must be based on federal policy. At the point federal policy bullshit makes an appearance in court, federal judges are not pleased to have to wade through it—so we too often get strongly-worded federal decisions against the Forest Service.

In any case, meaningful links between process and outcome in the Forest Service often simply don’t exist in any practical sense. They are too encumbered by bullshit. For example, we often hear that if the Forest Service can’t fix the Forest Planning process (for example) in ‘rulemaking’ then we’ll fix it in forest plan implementation—as if that can happen. Isn’t such talk just administrative governance denial?

I keep the pressure on, hoping against fate that a miracle will occur, as it did with General Electric not too long ago, just before GE was to fall in to a bureaucratic quagmire from which it would not, could not escape. Make no mistake, the GE rebirth was brutal. But the company is arguably much better today than before—now that fierce conversations are standard practice innovation is center stage, and people are required to challenge each other to do better, and to be better. Maybe someday the same will happen in a government agency, even perchance to the Forest Service. But I’m not holding my breath.

11 Comments

  1. Excellent Post Dave.
    Here’s my alternative hypothesis on Regulatory Bullshit:

    “Internal Monkey Wrenching”– Regulations deliberately written to elicit universal disdain and cynicism from all quarters of the public, and all elements of the agency rank and file, with the specific intention of fomenting anti-regulatory fervor everywhere.

    This allows for justifying the cuts to “big government” necessary for setting the next stages in the neoliberal agenda to further privatize, outsource government functions, deregulate, and devolve public process central to managing the commons (air, water, soil, ecosystems, etc.)

    • Glad you liked the post, David. I struggled with whether to launch it yesterday or wait ’till April 1. But I decided to blast it out in part because I don’t view political or administrative bullshit as a joke, although it falls in the category that Plato put life, “Life is a bad joke.” (something like that)

      I tend to think of “Internal Monkey Wrenching” more in terms of lying than bullshit. In politics and war sometimes lying is termed “strategic falsification.” Using the two words, instead of one for lying is likely bullshit. But the act of purposeful deception falls in the realm of lying. At least that’s the way I see it.

      One reason to have the BS post “out there” is so that we can all better discriminate between truth, lies, and bullshit. The boundaries are not all that clear, particularly between lies and bullshit, and there are many shades of grey, but we all need to think hard about what is being served up and by whom–both here at NCFP, in the broader polity, and in life in general.

      UPDATE: On second thought, maybe using the words “strategic falsification” for “lies” is itself just another lie, rather than bullshit. I get confused.

  2. I’m fairly confident that some of the policy making by the previous administration was designed to monkey-wrench the Northwest Forest Plan. Fortunately, it didn’t work very well.

    I almost would feel better if I thought that it were true for regulations as well. It may be in some instances, but sadly, most agencies just aren’t very good at it.

  3. The Northwest Forest Plan is yet another example of a fatally-flawed political solution that has been ineffective in doing anything worthwhile. Nothing that the NWFP promise has come to fruition. other than ending careers of Forest Service “dinosaurs”. We’ve seen huge fires in spotted owl nesting habitats, resulting in longterm losses of critical parts. In essence, one could say that the NWFP doesn’t follow the Endangered Species Act, harming MANY species, listed or not. The proposal to expand such results is very disturbing.

  4. At the risk of being more “outside the box” than you ;), Dave, I think the FS needs to review all manuals and handbooks. Totally. Except for NEPA that was just redone.

    There are so many it is hard to keep track of, in my opinion. And some of them are seriously outdated (like the underlying assumption that trees have positive economic value all the time), as well as not at the same level of detail, not taking advantage of electronic linkages, etc..

    As to fierce conversations, the Dialogos report said we needed more straight talk, which I suppose is either a variant or is the same thing. But people need to feel safe to be able to do that and that is a function of all the people who supervise others, which is thousands of people who have to be willing to engage in those kinds of conversations, plus supervision can be difficult anyway.

    So Dave, as I often ask, exactly what would you do to help resolve the internal BS problem?

  5. Dave- These are desirable goals (and resonate with the Safety Journey) but my question is more tactical (as usual).

    On Tuesday, I am going to a meeting. If I wanted to make it a “fierce conversation” rather than the usual, are there things I should do? Or is it impossible for one person to begin such a transformation?

    • W. Edwards Deming used to talk about the 5 Whys? That is, ask Why?, wait for a response, then ask Why? again. Repeat 5 times. The idea is to begin plumb the depths of “inquiry.” Dialogic techniques do the same, challenging people to explore deeper meanings, broader contexts.

      But sometimes it doesn’t work due to bureaucratic roadblocks. I remember a friend trying to expand a conversation with the WO Director of Planning in attendance. The Director simply said, “That is beyond the scope of this conversation.” That pretty much ended the conversation on that particular point as well as on all other meaningful inquiry.

      Of course framing a box tightly guarantees that people keep conversation and ‘proposed action’ or ‘problem resolution’ squarely “in the box.” The odd thing in this case, and in many others within bureaus, is that the Director thought he was properly controlling the conversation to keep things working toward a useful outcome.

      Still, as Karl Weick likes to point out, you can’t deal with ‘systems’ unless “the whole system is in the room.”

      But: you will meet with very hostile defense mechanisms when trying to explore new horizions, plumb new depths, etc. with Forest Service brass, high level staff, etc. Here is why, building off some Weickian philosophy

      Weick [writes] about the notion that good theorists should like new evidence that disconfirms their ideas, as it speeds the process of building interesting theory. But then he goes on to say that this doesn’t always happen because, once a theorist has a strong investment in a theory and has well-organized defenses and ideas about that theory, and is planning to spread the theory, new ideas (especially disconfirming evidence) will likely be experienced as upsetting to him or her—even if they improve the theory—because such interruptions throw a monkey wrench in current plans, causing the person to go through new cognitive effort and threatening to destroy something that he or she has worked hard to build and defend—and I would add to often lash out and destroy the offending ideas and evidence (and perhaps the person who has them).

      • As you know, the FS is an executive branch agency, and sometimes the elected officials, and political appointees have a strong investment in the theory, etc. In fact, they sometimes have been known to lash out!

        As the 10th Circuit Appeals judges were kind enough to remind us in the 2001 Roadless Rule hearing, “elections have consequences.”

        That is not to let the FS folks completely off the hook, but sometimes they are between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

        • No doubt that FS folks are sometimes caught “between the proverbial rock and a hard place.” But as an old friend and colleague used to say: When you see someone who has been hit by a Greyhound bus your heart goes out to them. If you encounter someone who has been hit twice by a Greyhound bus, you think that they are among the most unfortunate. If you find someone who has been hit by a Greyhound bus twenty times, you begin to wonder about that person. So too for organizations!

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