The Problem With Partnerships and Roundtables

When the laws regulating forest practices, endangered species, clean air and water were put on the books, it was well before the 1990s when our society became enthralled with neoliberalism that elevated economic utility and job creation above all in matters of public policy. Public resource managers now face local political pressure to base every decision on its financial impact to the local economy. During the last 25 years, public land managers have developed a “creative” new approach to administering laws which give local communities a voice and even quasi-control over land-use decisions through an array of public-private partnerships, roundtables and stewardship agreements. In all these partnerships, agencies seek to find local environmental representatives to represent the public view in these processes.

Unfortunately, in practical terms, local involvement and “reaching out” really means placing the most financially conflicted boosters and prodevelopment local interests at the decision-making table.

To achieve a pseudo “balance” to these consensus processes, agencies “reach out” to enlist local environmentalists—preferably cooperative ones. But few activists have any training in negotiating. They also lack experience with the consensus-management processes bureaucrats use to achieve agreements. Local participation has become the magic wand which can simply make federal and state laws disappear, to be replaced with good old boys always anxious to open up the “free store.”

I am not opposed to local consensus processes per se; for certain kinds of problems where public assets are not on the table—and the parties do not have large financial interests—they can be extremely productive. But I am concerned that land management agencies are adopting “partnership” processes which bring people with financial conflicts of interest directly into agency decision-making when the sale, rent, or gift of public assets are involved. It is only common sense to involve a whole community to design a skate park or develop a plan to control noxious weeds. But it is not OK for a consensus or partnership process to decide if a particular forest should be logged or whether a specific grazing allotment should be leased.

We are moving headlong into adopting unproven new processes for making long-term decisions about the future of our public assets without thinking them through and before thoroughly testing them. I am especially concerned that activists are not well prepared to take on the role of public interest protector by serving as the advocate for the environment. Adopting a role as a decision maker over specific local applications of federal land policy regulations is just not a local activist’s role. Whistle blowing and detecting improper agency acts are one thing. Becoming a policeman, administrator or actual decision maker is altogether different. The proper historical role of the grassroots activist is like a citizen patrol that tries to keep drug dealers out of a neighborhood. These patrols have no authority to, say, shoot drug dealers or arrest them, and neither are they authorized to permit dealers to work in one area in order to keep another area drug-free.

We wouldn’t abandon local police departments and turn law enforcement responsibilities over to local neighborhood watch programs. A forest activist, for example, has no right or authority to give anyone permission to cut down public forests because public land does not “belong” to local activists any more than it belongs to the timber industry. Activists are best thought of like the volunteer policemen often found in rural police departments; they can give you a ticket for speeding, but they are not authorized to give you permission to speed. Federal judges have repeatedly said in their decisions that agencies have systematically refused to enforce the laws. To expose these gaps, grassroots activists have been forced to step in with lawsuits, lobbying, and adverse publicity to compel agencies to do what they should have done by themselves. But that is really all activists are able to do.

The Neoliberal World View

In addition to these difficult practical problems with consensus groups, there are some larger but little discussed issues and trends shaping the “partnership” movement. These groups have not just suddenly appeared in a vacuum. America’s fundamental assumptions about the political decision-making process itself are being systematically reshaped by a new political theory called neoliberalism, which aggressively and specifically promotes ideas like local consensus groups. (If people have encountered neoliberalism before, it probably was in one of its economic manifestations.)

A central tenet of neoliberalism a political theory of governmental administration for which former Labor Secretary Robert Reich is a leading proponent—is a tendency to view the purpose of government in strictly economic terms, and to ascribe the cause of most problems to market inefficiencies and too little competition. Under this approach, all conflict is resolved by using rational, professional problem solving to find win-win, job-creating solutions. A defining characteristic of this approach is a reluctance to ascribe the cause of any problem to pervasive and systematic corruption, or to the ability of the rich and the strong to take advantage of the poor and the weak.

Saul Alinsky’s World View

This  theory is in sharp contrast to  what  activists have learned from decades of experience—a world view best summed up by Saul Alinsky (probably the 20th century’s best grassroots community organizer) who said, “We live in a world of unbelievable deceit and corruption…Giant corporations are unbelievably oppressive and follow a win-lose philosophy…. [and] will go to any length to make more money.”

In juxtaposition to the world view of neoliberals, where the consideration of corruption and influence peddling is banished to the memory hole, Alinsky’s world view was that societal problems often have a strong component of corruption. That view was shaped by living in Chicago in the ’30s, where Alinsky did his doctoral dissertation on Al Capone’s mob during Prohibition. He gained a unique, first-hand glimpse of just how totally corrupt the American system can become. He said of Al Capone, “Forget all that Eliot Ness shit… the Federal Government …couldn’t touch their power…When one of his boys got knocked off there wasn’t any city court in session because most of the judges were at the funeral and some of them were pallbearers.”

The essence of the reason why one should not use locals as “enforcers” was summed up in a story by Saul Alinsky about an incident that occurred while he was working on his doctoral dissertation. In the process, he was adopted by them and allowed to freely examine their books and records. One day he noticed that although Capone had 20 hit men on his local payroll, the mob paid $7,500 to bring in out-of-town killers for local hits. He innocently asked Frank Nitti, Capone’s top “enforcer,” why they wasted their money like this.

Nitti was shocked at Alinsky’s ignorance. “Look kid,” he said patiently, “sometimes our guys might know the guy they’re hitting, they might have been to his house for dinner, taken his kids to the ball game, been the best man at his wedding, gotten drunk together. …one of our boys goes up…he knows …there’s gonna be a widow, kids without a father, funerals, weeping—Christ, it’d be murder.” Alinsky said Frank was a little disappointed by his even questioning the practice; Frank thought Alinsky was a bit callous and insensitive.

The common-sense insight that outside people are more suitable enforcers has been forgotten as the environmental community becomes increasingly drawn into consensus and partnerships, which will supposedly replace, at least partially, the existing “out-side” federal enforcement of national environmental laws. Where will environmental protection be if we replace effective administration and oversight of our laws with schmoozy consensus groups and phony partnerships? Will we someday see the control of the Statue of Liberty given over to a local Staten Island “Jobs 2030 partnership” which closes its meetings to outsiders and designates 50% of its board seats to local scrap iron dealers?

No approach can better serve the needs of trans-national corporations, waging a “take-no-prisoners”/win-lose war on the world, than to have its only potential opposition—grassroots social and environmental change activists—adopt a win-win strategy. To adopt consensus-based solutions is a sure-fire way to eventually turn activists into what, in Yiddish, are called “nudniks” (from nudge): people who are always trying to get you to do what they want by constantly pestering and annoying you.

This essay is adapted from “Organize to Win” Vol 3 chapter 3 which is available on Amazon. Volumes 1,2 can be downloaded for free at britell.com Subscribe to his blog here


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Jim Britell is a native of Utica, New York and a retired federal manager who served as a long range planner, Management analyst, Chief of Management Information Systems and Chief of Systems Operations. He was a leader in the West Coast ancient forest campaign, has organized on behalf of wilderness in 30 states, and is author of the handbook on grassroots organizing, Organize to Win. He was formerly President of the Malone Public Library and board member of the NYS Library Trustees Association. He maintains a web site for grassroots organizers at Britell.com.

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