In the year since Governor Hickenlooper appointed me to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission (CPW) I have learned a tremendous amount about state government and conservation. CPW is the primary agency responsible for managing the state park system and wildlife. I also represent CPW on the Greater Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) Board. GOCO funds via lottery proceeds conservation projects in localities, open space, state parks, and wildlife.
CPW has over 900 people and an almost 200 million dollar budget, so it is not a small agency. Nevertheless Colorado is a huge state geographically with parts of the state isolated from the connected Front Range cities of Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs. It always amazes me it takes 8 or 9 hours to drive from Denver to Telluride. That would take you from Boston to Richmond and from one distinct culture to another. My biggest lesson of the last year is there is as much cultural difference within Colorado.
I was interested to see how many of my conceptions of government were accurate:
- How slow is it?
- How much waste is there?
- How political is public service?
- What is the relationship with the public?
- Is it a rewarding or frustrating experience.
Numbers 1 and 2 – Speed and Efficiency
In the private sector management expects to complete projects by the next day, the next week, or the end of the month. In the government world with the requirements of notice, public comment, outreach to non-governmental agencies (NGOs), local governments, tribes, industry, and consultation with the governor’s office and the legislature, even modest projects take many months and sometimes several years.
I recall President Eisenhower’s quote on the difference between the presidency and being Supreme Allied Commander Europe in World War II. In the military Eisenhower gave an order and thousands of men immediately worked to implement it. In the presidency Eisenhower gave an order and it tended to dissipate into the federal bureaucracy.
But here in our state government and throughout the US citizens have adopted a structure of government that imposes layer upon layer of checks and balances. It is easiest to visualize in an example. In a public company you build a zero based budget. You review that with the CFO and CEO, perhaps the audit committee, then the board of directors, and the board votes to adopt it. One oversight review from the board is it.
I asked a CPW employee to draw me a diagram of the CPW budget process. I stopped counting at seven the number of entities with oversight and review rights over the CPW budget. Some of the entities reviewed the budget more than once. The governor’s office, the oversight committee in the state Senate, the Department of Natural Resources, various legislative and joint committees, GOCO, and others play some role. Checks and balances do not equal speed and efficiency.
But it is the government voters have chosen.
Number 3 – How political is public service?
Not very. Although we discuss the political ramifications of decisions, we strive very hard to reach consensus and reasonable compromise. There is no campaign funding or partisan leadership driving boorish behavior.
Number 4 – What is the relationship with the public?
The environmental community, sportsmen, agriculture, outfitters, recreationalists (bikers, hikers, ohv owners), and others are interested in CPW’s mission. But they tend to only attend meetings when they are being denied or granted some benefit.
Recently we had a major turnout for a discussion of wolf reintroduction in Colorado. The room was packed and we had chanting protestors outside. All for a vote with at best symbolic meaning. CPW has no power to introduce or not introduce wolves.
But every meeting we do make big, strategic, important decisions and exercise our power over state parks and wildlife. And most times the public is absent.
Number 5 – Is it a rewarding or frustrating experience?
Deeply rewarding – I should pay the state for the privilege of serving. Over the course of a year I have learned from CPW employees, my fellow commissioners many of whom are deeply experienced in local and state government, NGOs, and the public. And the stark difference between the Front Range and the rest of the state is my most striking lesson.