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.


Anonymous said...

Great thoughts. But Garvey must have seriously misunderstood who and what he was dealing with. He evidently thought he could connect with the better angels in all government administrators. Sweet idea, but futile. The vast majority of agencies will never support historic preservation on their own, because it is a good thing. They see it only as something they have to do, in order to avoid being sued, or slowed down, or beaten around the brow by little old ladies with umbrellas. If nice folks who are of a mind with Garvey could hear for themselves how little regard there is for historic resources within the federal agencies, they wouldn't entertain nice thoughts like his, which are so pie in the sky.

The Burmese define futility as playing a harp to a Buffalo. That must have been Garvey strumming away for awhile. Just forget about it.

Thomas F King said...

There was a lot of naivete back then, but Garvey was hardly naive. I do think he had a simpler and far less bureaucratic notion of preservation than we tend to have today, and it was not impossible to imagine it taking hold as part of a general move toward responsible, participatory governance. But I agree with you, sort of, that nobody in government really gives a damn now. What they don't give a damn ABOUT is part of the issue, though.

Anonymous said...

Government bosses and those they oversee just dont take historic sites, and especially not archeological sites, seriously. Easier to burn it down or doze it away than deal with it. These are often people with advanced degrees who think nothing of bulldozing a listed National Historic Landmark if they could get away with it. I've had to intervene in those exact situations, and saw for myself the level of indifference - even contempt and resentment toward historic stuff that was in the way.

Considering that NHPA is a procedural law with no direct penalities, it amazes me that the law has gotten as much attention as it has these 50 years. The staffing and funding are beyond belief. So, let that be the extent of Garvey's vision - he and we may never win over any hearts, but at least the law has come much farther than anybody could have ever imagined in 1966. I'm sure LBJ never imagined it, and neither did Nixon when he signed a scrap of paper called 11593. The NHPA glass is half full, and that's about all we can hope for it.

Thomas F King said...

I think you're right, Anonymous, in a kind of unidimensional way. Yes we've saved some stuff; yes we've gotten astounding amounts of money allocated to doing so, or at least carrying out procedures supposed to do so. Yes we've created a helluva CRM industry and supported a lot of people straight through to retirement age, with more generations coming on. But do we have a sensible, balanced, cost-effective program that actually does what the law says is supposed to be done? I certainly don't think so, and I see the reduction of 106 review to "getting the SHPO's sign-off" as a major set of steps backward, so I'm not at all willing to settle for your half-full glass. Somebody else's, maybe, but not the one you're satisfied with.

Anonymous said...

It is hardly useful or accurate to portray agency attitudes towards preservation as universally or hopelessly indifferent. If we want to keep our precious white hats on and hector everybody who dutifully marches past our tower, we shouldn't pretend that this is really in the publics' best interests. At some point, we have to consciously decide to be naive - at least in so far as agency motivations are concerned. Assuming good faith at the start of consultations risks being runover, but in the long-term, it is the only way to set the stage for meaningful discussions. Otherwise, we're accepting the reduction of our jobs to complex and costly paperchase. A whole lot of people prefer the empty rote form of consultation, simply because it brings predictability and rarely threatens anyone's assumptions about the people sitting on the other side of the table. THAT is the truly depressing aspect of most Section 106 "consultations".

Thomas F King said...

I presume this latest Anonymous is a different Anonymous from the previous one(s), and for what it's worth, I agree entirely with him or her. I've come to the point of thinking that the public would be best served by doing away with Section 106 as it's currently composed, with its sole focus on stuff that's eligible for the National Register -- about which it's so easy for white-hats to be pompous and biased. Agencies ought to be required to consult -- REALLY consult -- about whatever's important to people and subject to effect. But that's too straightforward and democratic to ever be acceptable.

Anyway, I think Bob Garvey's point was not that all the agencies would turn into the National Park Service (gag), but that they might learn to give due, thoughtful, consultative consideration to keeping old stuff and continuing its productive use, rather than knocking it down and building new.

Anonymous said...

Tom, I think that you might have surrounded yourself with too many good intentioned people. I think that you view NHPA through a Lipe influenced and culturally sensitive lense. In a bubble, you cannot see that many managers are philosophically opposed to NEPA and NHPA, especially the idea that people have a voice. I am happy that the SHPO views every single undertaking. Some managers refuse to acknowledge the value of cultural resources and view the profession as a box in need of checking. The SHPO does more to protect resources than any good intentioned federal employee. We need more people involved in the process, not less. I am a new anonymous to the discussion.

Thomas F King said...

I dunno about "Lipe-influenced" -- I suppose I imagine that Bill and I have influenced one another -- but I'll plead guilty to "culturally sensitive." This is a problem? I don't think I'm in the bubble you imagine, though. I'm well aware that a lot of managers, among others, don't give a flying fig for "cultural resources," PARTICULARLY when they're defined to include only what pointy-headed professionals say is important. And of course they see the "management" of such resources as a box to be checked off --a perception we encourage by allowing "SHPO clearance" to be the be all and end all of the "CRM" review process. Another lesson I learned from Bob Garvey is that historic preservation (and, I'd say, "cultural resource management" even more) is about PEOPLE. If we'd practice it as such, emphasizing what's important to people, involving people, and making our work accessible to people, we'd perhaps build the alliances necessary to hit insistently ignorant decision-makers upside the head when it's needed. But by letting "CRM" evolve into an esoteric game whose purpose seems to be mostly to keep SHPO staff busy and consultants employed, we've thrown away any hope for such alliances. I think that's rather sad.

Anonymous said...

I see your point. And no, being culturally sensitive is not a problem. I was referring to a bubble. I doubt that you or members of the Advisory Council hear the things certain managers say to the so-called experts who face performance reviews. I also agree that the current state of CRM is sad. I feel that the consultant/advisor model creates conflicts of interest and ethical dilemmas.

Thomas F King said...

I guess it's nice that you think I live in such a bubble, Anon, but in fact I still spend a good deal of time working with agencies, and do hear what their planner, engineers, and bureaucrats say to their "experts." I get reports about the performance reviews. Not meaning to spam, but my 2009 book, "Our Unprotected Heritage" (Left Coast) is all about that sort of thing and what we ought to do about it (other than, as seems to be everyone's preference, just saying 'gotta go along to get along.').