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Monday, December 16, 2013

GAO and CRS Say: "Down with Public Participation"(?)


Leslie Barras has continued her string of thought-provoking reports for the National Trust for Historic Preservation with Honoring Our Nation's Veterans: Saving Their Places of Health Care and Healing (http://www.preservationnation.org/information-center/saving-a-place/va-hospital/NTHP-VA-Report-Exec-Summary-Rec.pdf).  The report is critical of how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) manages its substantial inventory of historic buildings and districts, though (speaking as a veteran and a contractor to VA) I find it refreshingly even-handed and sympathetic toward both VA's mission and the pressures exerted on it by Congress and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

One thing that Barras reveals -- which I guess doesn't surprise me because it supports my growing belief that everyone in Congress and the Obama administration has had their brains fed to zombies -- is this, on page 91.  After discussing a 1990s VA initiative to set up stakeholder advisory committees on medical facility closures, which she identifies as an example of the "Dialogue, Decide and Deliver" (DDD) model espoused by environmental justice groups, she reports that the Government Accountability (sic) Office (GAO) --

...criticized the VA’s inclusionary approach as inviting “protracted conflict” and “piecemeal” decision making because of the involvement of special-interest groups who would tend to “avoid difficult choices by focusing only on marginal changes to the status quo . . .”  The GAO then recommended an “independent” planning approach, which would consist of using VA planners or outside consultants to develop and analyze data upon which the VA would make ... decisions, followed by providing “sufficient information” to external stakeholders to “understand and support” decisions already made.  As opposed to the inclusive “DDD” public process, the GAO’s proposal is rooted in an antiquated and exclusionary public relations process called “DAD” (“Decide, Announce, and Defend”).  From the perspectives of several interviewees involved in past and current deliberations about possible realignments and closures of VHA facilities, ...  it appears that the GAO’s “DAD” approach has been followed by the VA.

Similarly, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has identified “stakeholder conflict” as complicating federal agency disposal efforts, noting that there is no “government-wide real property guidance for addressing stakeholder conflicts”. Several bills have been filed in Congress that purport to “reform” public involvement in federal real property management. One example is the Civilian Property Realignment Act (CPRA) of 2012, which would shorten the statute of limitations for citizen suits brought for violations of NEPA during disposal of federal property from six years to 60 days (CPRA of 2012, § 18(a)(2)).

If Barras is to be believed – and I’ve always found her reports to be pretty much on-target – we have not only the perennial jokesters in the House of Representatives, but the ostensibly knowledgeable and objective GAO and CRS proposing to turn the clock back to the 1950s, when government decided what was best for its citizens (Dam those rivers!  Demolish those slums!) and hired PR flacks to persuade the flaccid public that it was the Right Thing To Do – instead of (horrors!) actually consulting with the unwashed multitudes.  Unfortunately – as detailed in the book that Claudia Nissley and I are publishing next year via Left Coast Press (http://www.lcoastpress.com/book.php?id=504), there’s every evidence that she’s right.

Barras comments:

The importance of public involvement in decisions regarding assets that are ultimately public assets, and public heritage, may not be a priority for auditors concerned with the numerical accounting required to prepare balance sheets and federal financial statements. However, the apparent resistance to public involvement noted in the examples above seems antithetical to basic concepts of fairness, rights to expression, and transparency in a democracy, not to mention current federal law.

I, for one, couldn’t agree more.

2 comments:

Mark Barnes said...

In dealing with the subject of "public participation" it seems that the VA is attempting to balance an obligation to provide transparency in federal decision making with a program that promotes a reasonable time frame and how it can obtain well thoughtout comments to enhance the agency's decision process. It has been my experience that agencies want the public participation to enhance their decisions but do not explain their programs in a manner that the public can provide good comments. This lack of "education" for the public will only lead to negative comments being provided to the agency - which in turn sees the public participation process as a waste of time and the "taxpayers money." A few years ago the DOI published draft guidelines for soliciting comments on federal projects which could have eliminated a good bit of this type of controversy.

Tom King said...

Well, VA is working on it, but what concerns me more is that agencies like GAO and CRS are DISCOURAGING public involvement. As for DOI, at least to judge from its biggest land managing agency's standard ways of doing business, it hasn't a clue and couldn't care less.