And I want a stand-up work station!

Got an email today asking what I would say to Governor-elect Brown if I got the chance to talk to him for five minutes. I listed some stuff, but have been thinking about the question ever since. I’d like to add a couple more things about changing the agency culture.

First thing I’d say is that although I never see it discussed in the press, one of the consistent themes of the Schwarzenegger administration was that the agencies must work together. I suppose that’s not news, because who cares how the agencies work (so long as they do), and shouldn’t they all be working together already? Sadly, no, there wasn’t much coordination, even between agencies working on the same stuff, as the public can tell you. But I can attest that the practice of working with other state agencies is creeping into the culture here; it is becoming more and more reflexive to ask who else is working on the same stuff and what do multiple agencies need to do to avoid contradictions or duplications. Governor-elect Brown would do well to keep that going.

I would suggest a couple more things that seem to me to could re-direct agency attitudes in ways I’d like to see.

1. Direct agencies to re-do their engineering design manuals in accordance with the priorities of AB 32. Try to get buy-in from the ASCE, so this trickles down to the county and local levels.

This seems like make-work, but those design manuals are the default for everything that gets built. They’re mostly from the 1950’s, and there’s little memory for why they make the decisions they do. I am very sure they weren’t written with mitigating and adapting to climate change in mind. There are thousands of small decisions that are now the Right Way to Build Things throughout those manuals. They set concrete specs, for example, but now we know that cement production is a substantial source of greenhouse gas emissions and lower cement mixtures could be substituted for some uses. But the design manuals don’t reflect that. An enterprising engineer can select and defend a different concrete mixture, but if she isn’t motivated to do that, she can always rightfully default to the design manuals. Changing those manuals would change the default for decades.

2. Hire social scientists at the agencies, so that we aren’t forever making assumptions about what “the public” wants or relying on “stakeholder groups” to tell us.

My agency, at least, loves to talk about “integrated” water management. Oh, yes, they say. We no longer think only of concrete and canals, wonderful as those are. Now we want to integrate everything, flood and habitat and salts and water supply. We integrate both engineers AND biologists! I always sit off to the side, wondering who is integrating the thirty-nine million people that live in the state. The answer is no one, not in any meaningful policy way. You can tell this, because the foremost experts on any particular topic couldn’t begin to answer questions about how people interact with water systems.

What percent people prefer to wash dishes with the water running? Is that important to them? A lot or a little?
How well are people prepared to evacuate in a flood? How fast do they evacuate?
How much do people care whether there is a salmon run in the state? How much do they care about smelt? How much does that change if they see a salmon?
Do people want to keep a million acres of alfalfa in the state if it means that meat stays cheap?

These are answerable questions, even if the answers are things like a bi-modal distribution, or “people aren’t even aware of the issue”. Right now we don’t know the answers, and we assume that ‘whatever we are doing now’ is what the populace wants for as long as possible. It would be very useful to have someone sitting in our meetings who could say, “People don’t care at all about median strip irrigation, but don’t ever try to take their koi ponds away.” Then we could craft policy that accomplishes that! Relying on stakeholders to tell us is better than nothing (and better than guessing what the public wants based on what we ourselves want), but stakeholders don’t represent the general population well. They’re invested enough to spend time, which means that their opinions are more deeply held or set by the organizations that pay them. Which is fine, but not a good picture of the public at large.

Mostly, it kills me that the agencies have essentially no expertise on the largest driver in our system: people. They could argue levee requirements down to the millimeter of rip-rap diameter, but have no idea whether the people behind the levee have go-bags and evacuation routes selected. We don’t know why people keep moving into houses on faltering wells, or how often their house has to burn down or be flooded out before they’ll abandon the location. If the answer is “Never”, then we should get building codes to accommodate that level of risk. If the answer is “Twice”, then we can start setting aside money to help them move after the second time. How people act and what they want should be part of what agencies bring into policy decisions. But we don’t have any way of knowing that now. Bringing social scientists into the agencies would be as transformative as bringing environmental scientists into the agencies was. Gov. Brown should make that part of his administration.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “And I want a stand-up work station!

  1. Delta.WildRose

    Howdy There! When you hit the nail, I’m telling you it’s square on the head…well said!

  2. YK

    This post made me think about how different public transportation is from water, in terms of getting the general public involved. When I was living in LA, there was a lot of fairly detailed information available about plans for freeway improvements and light rail expansion. It would just show up in your mailbox; I guess it was understood that of course the general public is a major stakeholder.

    I suppose the difference is that, unlike water, transportation in LA has been a highly visible problem for years, so people are used to devoting attention to it, and they seem to be more realistic about what is possible. No one insists that it’s their right to be able to drive through downtown LA at rush hour without getting stuck.

  3. I couldn’t have said it better.
    To actually suggest involving those directly affected by the decisions being made !
    Lester Snow is chewing an antacid at the very thought of it.

  4. onthepublicrecord

    Easy now, big guy. Let’s not get hasty. I’m still a bureaucrat.

    I wasn’t proposing to directly involve people who are directly affected. We hear from those people; I’ve argued before that they don’t have much leeway except to say “keep things the way that maintains my interests.” Which is appropriate, but may foreclose solutions that the larger state needs. I was proposing to study people and bring the results of those studies into policy discussion (in addition to the public processes we have now). I’m particularly interested in weakly held opinions that we wouldn’t otherwise hear.

  5. onthepublicrecord

    I’ve never spoken to Secretary Snow, but I don’t get the impression that he is much disturbed by the prospect of interacting with the public. When they get to that level, those people are pro. He would be disarming and charming, and the public would come away all spun about. (I’ve seen Secretary Kawamura do a neat version of that.)