html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Tomorrow: why public meetings suck so bad.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Tomorrow: why public meetings suck so bad.

It is more than a little frustrating to hear from you guys that bureaucrats make arbitrary regulations in anonymity, based on who-knows-what because we are unaccountable to the political process. It is particularly galling to hear that because we spend half our fucking days trying to get public participation in our decision-making. There is a standard approach for public participation, and we take it very seriously. We release drafts for comment1 and hold workshops to solicit comment2. We come back with comment and re-work our documents. Most mildly controversial stuff goes out for public comment once. Anything even a little important goes out for public comment at least twice. The first question we hear from our managers is “What was the public comment on this?” We compile every single comment, break it into component parts and write an answer to each, whether or not we change the proposed document/plan/regulation to include it. If you have some notion that bureaucracies don’t respond to public opinion, you are wrong.

That said, our usual approach for public comment is adequate but not good. The public responds to documents we put out, meaning that the agency sets the framing for the issue. We don’t often get much response, and we don’t know who we are missing. You have to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the issues to realize what our very careful wording means for you. You have to come to our attention somehow to get on our notification lists. We hold meetings during the days, primarily because we think most attendees are professionals. We basically get a sampling of the opinions of the people who are paid to care. We never get anything approaching a broad referendum on our efforts.

Sometimes we get no public comments at all, and what are we supposed to think in that case? That the American public doesn’t care about the mandatory best management practices for detecting Asian tiger mosquito larva in imported nursery stock? That they like what we came up with? I’ve been disappointed recently (and it only goes to show you how amazingly idealistic I can be) that we primarily get comments that protect someone’s economic self-interest. We NEVER get comments from a member of the public who just happens to care, gets a copy of our draft document, thinks broadly and critically what the effects will be, writes them up and emails us. I have never seen that. On hot button environmental issues, we’ll get predictable screeds from both sides, but that is as disinterested (in the economic sense) as I’ve ever seen. I have NEVER seen anyone object to a proposed anything because it would lead to bad or complicated governance.

So it is not fair, you know, to complain that faceless, unelected bureaucrats make complicated regulations in a vacuum when we are constantly soliciting your opinion. If you cringe at the idea of reading proposed regs for cleaning techniques of recreational fishing boats to prevent propagation of non-native aquatic plant species, then you should be grateful to the bureaucrat who spends four years on it. You can do as much oversight as you like. Go to the meetings where she asks what you think. Read her work, call her and tell her how to make it better. She has to listen to you, because you are paying her. She wants to listen to you, because she wants to do a good job by the people of the state she serves. You can be vastly more involved than voting every other year. And if you don’t want to, then do not bitch about the people who spend their lives on the technical and unglamorous problems that come up when thirty-four million people live together.

1We post on our website, and email our stakeholders lists saying that the document is available for review and comment. Cities put paper copies in local libraries: the feds notice public comment periods in the Federal Register; we would mail anyone who contacted us a copy of anything.

2We usually go to Los Angeles, Fresno, Sacramento (streams live online) and Red Bluff, to make it easier for people to attend.


Blogger Megan said...

I made up both those examples (Asian tiger mosquitos, and boat-cleaning techniques). They're issues I've read in the paper, but I have no idea whether or how they're being addressed by some agency.

6:10 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Oh well, so much for my 4 page screed on Asian tiger mosquitoes.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Did you show how the proposed Asian tiger mosquito regs will interact with the existing regs on standing water in container ports to create powerful economic disincentives for non-native mosquito control?!?!?!! The very purpose the law is supposed to promote! Cause that would convince a bureaucrat.

6:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know anything about the environment, but in my industry (equity securities) public comment has been worse than a waste of time. The regulators for a very long time were co-opted by the NYSE and public comment never changed their plans. (On issues I cared about, the published public comment was always 100% negative, with the exception of the official comment from the NYSE and I never saw a proposed reg changed in the slightest). Additionally, the NYSE under Grasso was known to target people who disagreed with it, so anyone who fell under the exchange's regulatory umbrella would only comment anonymously through their lawyers. With Grasso gone there is reason to believe that things are getting better, but not so much that I would attach my name to this comment.
Until reading Megan this past week, I had always assumed that all regulations were authored by powerful insiders trying to protect their interests; it really never occurred to me that somewhere somebody might be writing regs with a genuine "public good" in mind (as opposed to mouthing "public good" as a shield.)

8:11 PM  
Blogger Pooh said...

because we are unaccountable to the political process.

In actuality, it's because they can't be bothered to show up to participate in the political process. (Note to market-libertarians, transactions costs are a bitch, you might want to take them into account before deifying the market...)

8:35 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

I think you're missing the point here again. I don't care about most of the things you're worrying about. And honestly, I don't have time to think about most of the things you're all keen on regulating. I certainly couldn't attend meetings you hold during the day, obviously I'm at work.

This is really the whole point of elections. I vote for someone I think will go figure all of this stuff out, and then vote the same way I would. That's their job, to understand all of this nonsense no normal person could ever be epxected to keep track of.

But, you have no problem with people who have no real accountability to voters making regulations as they please. Great, you ask for public comment and whatnot, but you said yourself you don't get much, and what you do get is from people looking to protect their economic self interest. So, if people aren't commenting, and being involved, which just isn't realistic to expect from people with families and full time jobs, even if you are at your best you're still not representing the people. You're making arbitrary decisions that you think are best.

I'm not against all regulation. But, I do still think that you're way too idealistic, and trusting of big government bureaucracies.

12:29 AM  
Blogger Erica said...

I agree that most of the people affected by a regulation (which, when you're talking about something like drinking water, is everyone) can't be expected to be informed enough include themselves in the process; even Megan doesn't know everything there is to know about irrigation systems and water is her job. And I also agree that regulations should be representative of the will of the people.

But that's exactly why we have the current system. At the top of any given agency are elected officials or people directly appointed by elected officials. Those people determine the direction the agency will take, what its priorities will be, what issues it will address, where the funding will go. The body of the agency is made up of people like Megan, experts who are hired for their skills rather than their politics. It's their job to implement the policies determined by the people at the top, and they do it the best way they can. It's true that this means the fine points of a policy are going to be determined by "faceless bureaucrats," but that's exactly what I want: somebody who isn't concerned about reelection or his 2012 presidential bid, and who's going to be around in five years to deal with the consequences of a misguided decision.

6:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You don't really believe elected officials understand all the things they are responsible for do you? Or even can in theory?

Even supposing they didn't spend at least half their effort and expertise on getting elected, that wouldn't be plausible. The absolute best you can hope for out of an elected official is that they push for policy level decisions that reflect your wishes, and they do a good job of choosing the people who actually do the work.


2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First time commenter here. (Great blog, Megan. Even though sometimes your ideas are insane (eating locally? Because the infrastructure required to support eating globally is too messy for your taste? WTF? Uh, you might want to consider the fact that we need practically all of that infrastructure regardless of our eating habits, for national defense if nothing else...), at least you clearly explain why you think them. Okay, I did get the memo on you not liking fawning, so I'll stop now.)

There are two concepts which I'd like to add to this debate.

(i) Proactive transparency. It's time the government took full advantage of this newfangled Intarweb thing. Not just posting the letter of the law on the Web, but having a Wiki or something similar explaining the reasoning behind the laws, etc., so that intelligent laymen can quickly understand them without being proficient in legalese. It'll take a lot of effort to set this up, but I suspect that it will pay for itself by enormously improving the feedback you receive, not to mention improving bureaucrats' own understanding of the systems they're working with.

This also can improve bureaucrat accountability, if the relevant Web pages explain who is responsible for what regulation, etc.

(ii) Refactoring. The law has been compared to spaghetti code; well, this is the standard solution. It sounds like it happens less than it should in government. Reform procedures so that it's easier for a sound simplification of the law to become reality.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

More meta discussion, showing that our decisions weren't arbitrary? My first inclination is that NO ONE CARES. Y'all act like the problem is that we are hiding what we do; but I'd bet money that most Californians couldn't name the agencies dealing with water, much less describe the function of any one program. People hate us in the abstract, but can't be bothered to find out what we do.

We are required by law to write every document we put out to the 8th grade level, so that it is broadly accessible. By law again, every single thing we put out has a name and number attached to it.

But, a centralized wiki, for civil servants to fill out? It might be interesting if it were responding to actual questions...

Refactoring sounds like re-inventing government and Model Codes to me, both of which I am in favor of when I am in charge. Also, who would pay for it? It is really hard to drum up money for consolidating and improving governance.

After Peak Oil and The Revolution, DoJ, I'll let you reevaluate whether eating locally is an insane idea.

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

More meta discussion, showing that our decisions weren't arbitrary? My first inclination is that NO ONE CARES. Y'all act like the problem is that we are hiding what we do; but I'd bet money that most Californians couldn't name the agencies dealing with water, much less describe the function of any one program.

No, I understand perfectly well that you aren't hiding what you do. But I think Wikipedia has convincingly demonstrated that for an awful lot of arcane subjects, SOMEONE cares enough to study it on their spare time. The procedures for soliciting public comment were designed for the technology of several decades ago, with only patchwork attempts to exploit the Internet; I believe there is a lot to gain by presenting the law and the reasoning behind it in a format that is easy for freaks (I probably qualify as one of them) to browse.

We are required by law to write every document we put out to the 8th grade level, so that it is broadly accessible. By law again, every single thing we put out has a name and number attached to it.

Yes, I understand that you've been trying to be transparent. But usability is extremely important. Make it almost as easy to make intelligent comments on the actual law as it is to intelligently respond to what you say on your blog, and I think amazing things will happen.

On the flip side, though, this Wiki approach may not work for most government policy since in too many cases there are significant win-lose interactions and thus the affected parties will do their best to manipulate any forum you use for feedback. You may be mostly shielded from this precisely because so few people have been interested in your work.

Also, who would pay for it? It is really hard to drum up money for consolidating and improving governance.

Who pays for Wikipedia? Maybe I'm overly optimistic, but again it seems that some people would be willing to help out with their spare time and money.

After Peak Oil and The Revolution, DoJ, I'll let you reevaluate whether eating locally is an insane idea.

Worst case, coal will sustain our infrastructure.

The fact of the matter is, we don't accomplish anything by unilaterally abandoning a modern infrastructure; the only practical effect is to hand geopolitical power over to the countries who don't abandon it. In the end, it doesn't matter if we pollute the Earth or China does, the Earth is polluted just the same.

If, on the other hand, we keep the economic/technological lead, and pursue environmentalism to the maximum extent possible consistent with maintaining the lead, we have a much better chance of protecting the Earth, since we can pretty much force other countries to follow our lead. It's not pretty, but that's reality for you.

5:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After Peak Oil and The Revolution, DoJ, I'll let you reevaluate whether eating locally is an insane idea.

I realize this is an old discussion, but while I was grabbing an orange, imported to my state from California, for lunch today, I thought of this comment.

It seems to me there are only really a few areas of the country where eating locally is feasible. California happens to be one of these areas. Were I to eat locally, my diet would consist primarily of soy and corn. A diet of tofu and corn would probably be a little too bland for my taste. And were I to move back to NC where I grew up, my diet would consist primarily of tobacco and cotton.

Not that I don't appreciate eating locally, and visit the Farmer's Market once a month to see what's up for grabs.

But I think I just love eating fruits and veggies from California too much to adopt this "local seasonal eating" practice.


12:17 PM  

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