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March 20, 2012

When Policy Trends Toward Bullshit

Much government policy and some law resides in a realm philosopher Henry Frankfurt labels "bullshit"—in earlier times called humbug or balderdash. Much US Forest Service policy falls here too: regulation, manual and handbook directives. At least that's the way I've seen it for a very long time.

Early in my Forest Service career, a colleague and I were conscripted into a week-long Forest Service Manual/Handbook writing exercise, specifically focused on the Forest Planning sections. A quick survey of the materials led us to conclude that our week had to be spent making sure that there was nothing in the FS planning manual that could possibly harm anyone. We knew that we could not 'fix' the manual, so we spent our week in a second-best endeavor.

A few years later a FS Planning Director asked a group of us for policy ideas at an economists conference. I suggested a bold move: Throw the Forest Service Manual and Handbook in the Potomac. I made the recommendation in the main because both the FS Planning and Economics Manual/Handbook materials were pretty much bullshit. Note that I immediately added that people should be able to swim out and retrieve portions of the policy manuals they deemed useful, and then upgrade them as necessary to help advise program development, project design and work generally. The point was to decommission the whole mess, and free the agency of both the manuals/handbooks and the mini-bureaucracy that oversaw them. Of course I didn't believe that the FS would act on my suggestion, at least not then. But one can always hope. [Note: I wish there were electronic copies of earlier FS Manual/Handbook materials to point to for historical (hysterical?) purposes. ]

I suggested "tossing" the FS manual and handbook to both Chief Dombeck (via Chris Wood) and Chief Bosworth. Both were somewhat warm to the idea, but nothing happened. I've once again raised that issue with FS top brass, suggesting that collaborative adaptive governance can't work if everybody shows up with several yards worth of "holy writ" that must be followed.

Later I called bullshit on the Forest Service's initiative to tie planning (and pretty much all else) to environmental management systems—chronicled in my Forest Environmental Management Systems blog (Oct. 2005 – April 2007). That particular mess went away, with EMS rightfully retreating to a minor place (facilities and fleet management) in Forest Service administration. I'm sure my blogging did not influence the outcome. But at least I left a record, so that we might learn from the mistake.

Common wisdom says, "When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging." Let's pause a moment and explore special characteristics of what we are digging through.

What is 'bullshit'?
Before anyone gets too upset with my BS terminology, maybe we ought to delve into Frankfurt's little book On Bullshit—an essay really, which you can read online. Frankfurt's little book adorned a special shelf in my FS office bookshelves, accompanied by Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Something Happened, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and some other classics. Frankfurt begins On Bullshit with,

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. … In consequence we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.

Frankfurt attempts to tease out a 'theory of bullshit' for us. I'll not bore you with all Frankfurt's building blocks, but I at least we need to know that he distinguishes bullshit from lying, in part as follows:

The essence of bullshit is not that it is false, but that it is phony. … The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong. [But it does mean that they don't quite ring true.]

How much FS policy falls in this realm? Politicians tend to create bullshit to pander—to curry favor. Bureaucrats create bullshit for very different reasons. Frankfurt says,

Bullshit is unavoidable when circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. … [This is] common in public life, where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.

Think about how Forest Service teams are put together, often without asking for volunteers and without too much regard for seeking out the most knowledgeable team members. It always seemed to my jaundiced eye that team members were selected to construct manual and handbook materials in the main because they were 'good soldiers', and particularly not 'radicals' who might rock the boat too much.

Why I've tried to stop the BS
I know that it is pretty much a fool's quest, but I've always tried to get the Forest Service bureaucracy to 'swing for the fences' and pull itself up from the morass of its own policy, manuals and handbooks. But, like many American institutions the Forest Service will not take a hard look at itself. Maybe it's due of fear. Maybe it is due to ennui—stuckness, lack of hope. Maybe it is something else. Maybe it is just because they don't realize that bullshit might be outright harmful, even toxic to the organization.

This proves especially true when bullshit policy is brought into court, "for the record," when people challenge federal actions, which must be based on federal policy. At the point federal policy bullshit makes an appearance in court, federal judges are not pleased to have to wade through it—so we too often get strongly-worded federal decisions against the Forest Service.

In any case, meaningful links between process and outcome in the Forest Service often simply don't exist in any practical sense. They are too encumbered by bullshit. For example, we often hear that if the Forest Service can't fix the Forest Planning process (for example) in 'rulemaking' then we'll fix it in forest plan implementation—as if that can happen. Isn't such talk just administrative governance denial?

I keep the pressure on, hoping against fate that a miracle will occur, as it did with General Electric not too long ago, just before GE was to fall in to a bureaucratic quagmire from which it would not, could not escape. Make no mistake, the GE rebirth was brutal. But the company is arguably much better today than before—now that fierce conversations are standard practice innovation is center stage, and people are required to challenge each other to do better, and to be better. Maybe someday the same will happen in a government agency, even perchance to the Forest Service. But I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by Dave on March 20, 2012 at 09:43 AM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack