18 September 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?


  1. Sympathy is easy. Constructive advice short of running for Governor, and winning, is tough. The best is hang in there and keep making the point with colleagues and whoever you are allowed to talk to that the crux of the problem is lack of natural flows and short of addressing that, everything else is of limited value.

  2. LB has to be commended for raising the question, yet I think that with time the well intentioned state employee becomes despondent and complacent about the pace of water policy change. [Hey, that sounds like me.] Before he moved on to other pursuits, a staffer told me long ago that nothing happened at the Texas water agency before fingers were licked and held in the air. I don't think that's changed. The political scientists call it "disjointed incrementalism". Is it comforting or just scary that we have a cool name for our disfunction?

  3. This commentator from DWR has just done one of the best things possible... to begin showing the world that the real worker bees within the system are unhappy with their bosses running the show and know what they are doing is wrong. They could overthrow the entire system from within with more anonymous blogs. Of course they risk losing their jobs and fat benefits and pensions, but if they really want to see significant changes, this is what the history makers do for the public good.

  4. Jane Wagner-Tyack20 September, 2014 01:38

    The fact that LB asked the question is tremendously encouraging. LB can't possibly be the only one. Please don't get so disgusted that you leave. We need you asking difficult questions and pointing out absurdities whenever you feel you can. And if you do leave, you will have quite a lot of credibility if you want to address these problems from outside the bureaucracy.

  5. As a federal agency employee (years ago) my colleagues and I used the reactionary nature of our agency to bring focus to some specific issues. We (discreetly) encouraged NGOs and the media to solicit information from us and to encourage elected officials to do the same. This raised the profile of these issues and did eventually (it took years) lead to changes in policy.

  6. Thanks for all the constructive comments and to David for his feed back.

    RP: I've no desire for elected state service but that desire may become inversely proportional to my frustration with the system. Lack of natural flows and over allocation are definitely the issues.

    Mr. Griffin: It's not comforting to know that dysfunction is institutionalized and defined.

    Mr. Beley: I'm not convinced that anonymous blogs have the mass to overthrow the entire system. However, I'm quite certain that getting the "real worker bees" within the various state departments, agencies, and offices tasked with natural resource conservation, management or educating the legislature on the topics DOES have the potential mass to do affect real change, the trick is to concoct a sweet potion to attract the bees. So far beer seems to be working very well.

    Ms. Wagner-Tyack: thank you for your encouragement. Asking difficult questions does not seem to be a pathway to success here, but a pathway to an interesting and unpredictable career. I like a good adventure.

    KMC: Yes! I'm beginning to see how this big machine works and I've seen the scenario you describe at work in several different arenas. I have a friend on the NGO side and I explained this to him a couple years ago. He saw it too but was frustrated to have his fears reinforced by me seeing it the same mechanisms but from inside the state. Do you have Oprah's number? I think it's time she knows too ;-)

    All: Thanks again for your feed back and words of encouragement. Through this blog post David introduced me to a reader who works within a state office. It was a great contact and I know we will both benefit from having met and future meetings. As for moving forward and gaining critical mass within the rank and file, I'm off to a weekly gathering where bees tend to collect and talk water and environment around beer. Care to join me? The first one is on me.


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