If there has been one constant in my 10 years of covering Great Lakes issues it’s our love affair with process and bureaucracy.
We have a multitude of agencies, councils, commissions, coalitions, committees, initiatives and advisory boards. I can quickly name 10 and more are on the way.
We must think more cooks in the kitchen make a better stew.
A GLAB and a GLEC
The EPA’s new Great Lakes Advisory Board — GLAB (why not, there’s already an advisory committee called a GLEC) — consists of 18 members. I was surprised at the number. When the concept of the board was announced I wrote here that it wasn’t necessary. Most of what needs to be done with Great Lakes restoration is known and all it takes is political will and some money — mostly the former — to make progress. But a board was going to happen over my concerns anyway so I argued for a small entity consisting of 6-8 members. No luck.
There are a lot of long-time Great Lakes establishment names on the board — people who have worked on the issues for years.
It includes David Ullrich representing the cities, Molly Flanagan from the Joyce Foundation (key funding source for many on the board), Jennifer Hill representing environmental groups and former Michigan state legislator Patricia Birkholz. They are experienced and knowledgeable advocates who have made contributions over the years.
I’m slightly encouraged to see a few new names like Naomi Davis of Blacks in Green and Jim Wagner from Trenton, Mich. They aren’t the usual suspects.
Great Lakes advocacy work has been Chicago and Ann Arbor/Michigan-centric, the traditional base of the Great Lakes establishment and that will continue.
But the essence of the advisory board is that it represents the old way of doing things — committees, boards, councils, initiatives, etc. It’s hard to prepare for the future using processes and structures rooted in the past.
In its announcement press release, the EPA said that the White House’s Interagency Task Force “is in the process of scheduling next steps” for the board. There you go — an 11-member federal agency task force scheduling an 18 member advisory board.
Does that make sense coming from the executive branch of the federal government that says it wants to streamline?
And what is there for this board to do that federal Great Lakes executives couldn’t do by themselves?
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has distilled its work to essentially three areas:
- Restoration of the toxic legacy sites known as Areas of Concern. Restoring those sites is good work that is long overdue and progress is being made.
- Stopping the advance of Asian carp — someone had to fund the carp fight and that’s been the restoration initiative. It wasn’t part of its original mission.
- Trying to control algae blooms, especially in Lake Erie. But controlling algae is a job that’s poorly suited for restoration. The restoration initiative’s action plan is about spending money and getting results. The algae issue isn’t a money problem. Instead it’s about having the political will to regulate agricultural runoff.
Learn from other legacy entities
It’s time to step back and reassess.
I take my cue from Detroit Public Television MiWeek contributors Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press and Nolan Finley of the Detroit News. Both recently talked about the need for state, county and city governments to examine how they are structured and how they relate to each other. Population declines and shifts and economic uncertainty have rendered some current governance structures ineffective.
There are efficiencies to be gained in terms of economic benefit and service improvements by designing a new model of regional governance, Henderson and Finley said. They acknowledged that officials have to be willing to let go of the current non-functional structure.
Their point could apply to Great Lakes management.
Why not put all of the existing agencies, councils, advisory boards, commissions, initiatives and coalitions on the sidelines and start with a clean sheet of paper.
In corporate parlance it’s a reorganization which happens periodically as a company adapts to changing conditions. General Motors had to shed its beloved Pontiac and Oldsmobile brands in order to survive. Painfully, dealers had to be cut. Not every town needed a GM dealer.
Here’s my recommendation.
Pull the plug on the Great Lakes Advisory Board before it starts. A simple things have changed press release will suffice especially since incoming EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has no ownership of the GLAB. Better now than after it starts to meet.
Pull together a half-dozen savvy Great Lakes minds including a few with a memory of the past but who don’t cling to it. They don’t have to have a long list of credentials. Remember both Steven Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg — Apple and Facebook respectively–dropped out of college.
Importantly, include outsiders who have no stake in the outcome. None of them should be in a position to need or want federal money. That helps guarantee objectivity. Charge them with designing the next generation of Great Lakes management.
They should emphasize results and efficiency over process, redundancy and bureaucracy.
They need to focus on a Great Lakes management model for the next 30 years.
Because our current structure is about the last 30.Editor’s note: Related commentary with different view in April 12 thestar.com