Thursday, September 25, 2014

Forgetting Bob Garvey's Mantra

When I went to work at the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) in 1979, my boss was the ACHP’s first executive director, Robert R. Garvey, Jr.  Bob was one of the “Big Three” (with Earnest Connally and William Murtagh) who had set up the U.S. Government’s historic preservation program after enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) – which, as executive secretary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he had been significantly responsible for creating.  He was also substantially responsible for creating the process of federal project review under Section 106 of NHPA – the “Section 106 process” that, with various additional bells and whistles, we know and love (sic) today.

I was reminded of Bob – long retired and sadly, long dead – the other day while reading the transcript of a meeting about a Section 106 programmatic agreement (PA).  The consulting parties had labored for months to develop the PA – an intricate piece about management of a federal installation – and reached agreement on its provisions, for implementation of historic preservation plans of various kinds.  These plans would, if carried out, ensure that all changes to historic buildings and landscape elements were done in accordance with the recommended approaches in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, under the supervision of qualified professionals, with various kinds of public review and opportunities to resolve disputes.

“But remember,” said the representative of the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), according to the transcripts.  “You’ll still have to submit each undertaking for our review.”

“Of course,” said the federal agency’s representative, and one could imagine heads bobbing all around the table.  “That’s the law.”

Well, of course, it’s not the law.  SHPO review of projects is not a matter of law; it’s prescribed in the ACHP’s regulations (36 CFR Part 800) as part of the Section 106 process.  The regulations also provide that agencies can negotiate PAs as alternative ways to comply with Section 106 – which was what the agency, in this case, had done. 

But legalities aside, it was the SHPO’s attitude that brought Bob to mind.  Bob had a sort of mantra that he drilled into the heads of all those who worked under his direction.  It went like this:

“Our job is to work ourselves out of our jobs.”

The idea was that over time, we should get federal agencies and other change agents to address the historic preservation impacts of their actions so naturally, so mindfully, that they wouldn’t need regulatory nit-pickers like us – and the SHPOs – looking over their shoulders. 

Reviewing that transcript, it struck me that it had been a long, long time since I had heard anyone articulate or even allude to Bob’s mantra.  I don’t think most historic preservation people or agency officials or representatives of regulated industries even know about it, or can relate to it.

It seems to me that in the years since Bob’s generation departed the historic preservation scene, we’ve become comfortable with the idea – indeed, deeply committed to the idea – of a permanent historic preservation bureaucracy, whose good gray officials review every project and insist that “proper standards” – as they understand and articulate them – are followed.  The members of that bureaucracy, and those of us in the private sector that advise clients about how to comply with the law, have become deeply committed to its perpetuation, and really can imagine nothing different.  Hence the SHPO’s assertion in the transcript, and the agency’s bland acquiescence.  

In retrospect, I suppose it was inevitable.  Create a bureaucracy, and it will inevitably evolve into a self-perpetuating one.  One that, I fear, is often more concerned about perpetuating itself than about the principles and policies it was set up to advance.

I wonder, though – as we approach NHPA’s fiftieth anniversary – if we shouldn’t revisit Bob Garvey’s mantra, and think about ways to work ourselves out of our jobs.