18 Sep 2014

What can a state employee do to fight corrupt policy?

I got this email from a little bird (LB):
After 3 years of having my head deep in ecosystem restoration and coming the the conclusion that our program is just chasing its tail (not addressing the real problem, but doing lots of hand waving so that it looks like progress on the surface), I want to know how to push the debate towards the real issues of water over use, farming in inappropriate soils, depletion of ground water, political corruption, etc.

In terms of the CVP & SWP, Westlands Water District (and other junior water right holders farming in salty soils on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley), Federal Biological Opinions for the pumps in Tracy that address environmental symptoms instead of the cause (over-allocation), and subsidized water deliveries to billionaire farmers who are very cozy with state and federal politicians... What can someone like me -- a CA State Government employee working to protect our natural resources -- do to fix a system that is, well, already "fixed" for the benefit of special interests?
In reply, I said:
Thanks for your insights. I'm surprised that I don't hear, more often, from state employees...

You're in a tough spot. There's a bit of robber barons going on here -- they stole the gold and laundered it into mansions, etc. How to get it back?

I agree with you that many policies (and employees) focus on details while missing the big picture, e.g, WHY are we sending water in huge aqueducts to huge farms?

Perhaps the best way to push back on the current system is to imagine -- and project -- two different futures: (1) with business as usual (collapsing aquifers and ecosystems; dust bowl, etc.) versus (2) with changes in flows, smaller farms, etc.

The vision thing can help people grasp an alternative which can THEN result in huge policy overhauls. It's like busting a dam and seeing a river revive. People THEN understand the point.
LB wrote back:
I think a reason why you don't hear from state employees more often is because they are either too busy in their specialized tasks to have time to come up for air to see the big picture or following the "state worker golden rule," i.e., don't make more work for yourself.

I agree that vision is a powerful tool. I'm not sure how to apply that in a department that is reactionary and can't keep employees long enough to build institutional knowledge to see the vision through.

I've often joked to colleagues that only Oprah can save the environment due to her ability to sway the masses and plant the vision... but then this is a conversation about water, fish, farms and money, not sexy celebrities. We ecologists are not allowed to contact elected government officials. They can ask for information from us, but it's not to be given unsolicited. It is very "chain of command" here, and I'm still figuring out how that end of the machine functions.
Can any of you offer advice, sympathy or ideas to help LB do their job and/or cope in an environment that is designed to minimize innovation and feedback?