Dealing with public employees: Jim Britell shares tips for activists

10/16/2019

I met Jim Britell on the banks of the Yellowstone River in southwestern Montana in 1994. We were both teaching organizing and communication skills at a Patagonia-sponsored summer camp for environmental activists (we were paid in clothing). Before becoming a wilderness activist, Britell had worked as a federal manager for 25 years. In his career in government service, he was responsible for resolving turf conflicts within federal agencies. He oversaw the evaluation of managers and supervisors, and conducted audits of local and regional offices. Early in his tenure, he supervised a federal field office similar to those now operated by the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. There he acquired insight into how government managers think, behave and deal with the day-to-day pressures inside federal agencies, particularly those brought to the agencies by activists. In the years since, he has been a committed and vocal activist and, as such, has dealt continuously with state and federal managers. Recently I corralled him for a conversation about his life and work as a government employee-turned-activist, and learned that those two roles are not as conflicted as they might seem. — Mark Dowie

MD: What is the main takeaway from your work on both sides of the government-activist divide?

JB: Well, it’s not as big a divide as it may seem, Mark. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as both an insider and outsider is this: Environmental advocates always have a better chance of influencing government decisions when they develop good personal relations with relevant government officials. Although this seems obvious, activists often assume an adversarial posture when dealing with bureaucrats, which greatly reduces the prospects for success.

MD: Then where does the problem lie?

JB: While public employees in general are honest and hard-working, when environmental laws that protect very valuable natural resources are involved, the political pressure on agencies to bend and even break the law to generate more economic activity can become too much to resist. This is when environmentalists become the instrument by which the public forces agencies back into legal behavior. 

MD: And how does that happen?

JB: Environmentalists are to public agencies as plumbers are to blocked sewer lines; the interactions and processes in both situations are often messy, stressful and unpleasant. In most relationships, agency employees will, and should, avoid getting too friendly, and may even be hostile to activists. But occasionally, when agencies are clearly violating the law and their employees know it, you may find people inside agencies who will help you. However, in most situations, agency managers, behind the scenes, will be helping the companies and politicians who benefit from their wrongdoing. More than one federal manager has promised me confidentially that he would help me; later, pressure from his bosses forced him to promise an opponent the exact opposite. Paradoxically, the ostensibly “greener” agencies (like the forest service) are more likely to fail to keep promises than the agencies that often seem unconflicted about their bad behavior (like the B.L.M.).

MD: What is the most important misconception activists have about bureaucrats?

JB: Activists contending with a state or federal agency often assume that the anti-environmental behaviors of the agency are subscribed to by the agency’s employees. Nothing is further from the truth. Most people who work for land management agencies are professionals in the natural sciences, and they truly care about nature and the environment. Nevertheless, almost every environmental outrage involves some scientist watering down or rewriting reports to deliberately conceal and minimize environmental impacts. Over time, this can make the staff of land management agencies frustrated and even ashamed of themselves. So, when you approach staff for help in detecting a project’s weaknesses, you might be surprised by how much they are willing to tell you (off-the-record, of course).

MD: Have you found, as I have, that some agency employees who are unwilling or unable to tell you much about their employer will gladly inform you about the inner workings of other agencies working in the same ecosystem?

JB: Yes, particularly scientists, who might be unwilling to help you solve problems in their agency but more than willing to help you stop bad projects or practices in another. Also, if you are involved with a campaign against one branch of government and nearby land is under the control of another, often the neighboring agency will have a lot of helpful scientific information buried in their files. For example, scientists preparing biological plans for a state agency often do surveys on a regional or watershed basis and possess critical information on endangered species on nearby federal land. This can be about wide-ranging animals, endemic plant species, geology or hydrology information, and is often information they are happy to share. A state biologist may be unable to do much to stop bad things from happening to the fish runs in a river that flows through state land, but that same scientist may be very knowledgeable and help you protect fish upstream in that same river where it flows through federal lands.

MD: What kind of agreements do activists have to make with agency scientists and other employees to gain their confidence and cooperation?

JB: Unfortunately, some grassroots environmental organizations never get anything but official, by-the-book answers to any question from public agencies or politicians because agency staff have learned from painful experience that if they give off-the-record information to activists, they won’t keep confidences. So, often staff don’t even give activists information that is ordinarily available to anyone. In any campaign, whether political or environmental, even opposing sides sometimes share information with each other that would look very awkward if it became public. Amateurs will sometimes betray a confidence to gain a quick headline and become forever frozen out from information. So don’t do that. If you are discreet and use information without burning your source, it can pay huge dividends. 

MD: Can you give an example?

JB: Sure. Once I was at an agency meeting as part of a public process to classify some newly acquired state land, and all morning, the lead agency scientist responded to my every attempt to find vulnerabilities in their preferred alternatives with variations of, “That’s not a problem….” He fought me on every issue. Later, when everyone else had gone out to lunch, the two of us stayed behind (we had brought our lunches). We were alone in the meeting room with the maps and handouts between us. He said, “The issues you are raising are not really serious problems.”

I asked him: “Do you know where the serious problems are?” 

He said, “Sure.” 

I responded, “Will you show them to me?” 

He pulled the map over and pointed out the critical and fatal weaknesses in their alternatives. Turns out he had been unsuccessfully trying to get them changed through the agency’s internal channels all along. Armed with his information, which involved egregious violations of the agency’s own biological survey procedures for an animal I was not aware even existed in the area—let alone had strict protocol for—I was able to get his agency to agree to all my concerns.

MD: Are there good and bad ways to use information gained from activist-friendly bureaucrats?

JB: Of course. When you use “inside” information never inadvertently disclose your source. Once I made the mistake of asking for a “lost” document about a gross agency violation with such specificity that the agency could tell I could only have found out about it from one person. My source almost lost his job and never was friendly again, and we had been good friends.

MD: How do you deal with scientists specifically?

JB: As a class, scientists have a hard time not telling the truth. You should approach them directly as individuals, rather than in their official role. Ask questions like, “How would you try to stop this project, if you were me?” or “What questions should I ask you that I haven’t?” The best-kept secret in grassroots environmentalism is that the vulnerabilities of many projects are brought to our attention by agency scientists who are in the position to know what the real facts are.

MD: Do you find the employees of any branch of American government more cooperative than any other branch?

JB: In my experience, and every local situation is unique, the likelihood of substantial cooperation and support from managers and officials declines as you go down the chain from federal, to state, to county, to the local level. The lower you go, the more insecure, timid and afraid officials tend to be. 

MD: How do you contend with corruption when you find it?

JB: Of course, some land managers are evil people. Some are even personally corrupt, but this is rare. Most make bad decisions and carry them out because they feel they are forced to do so. Regardless of a person’s reputation or that of their agency, approach them with the assumption they will do the right thing. Many will rise to your expectations. On the other hand, if you approach staff with the attitude that because they are doing bad or wrong things, they are personally bad and corrupt, they will probably respond accordingly (unless they are smarter and better lobbyists than you are).

MD: At what point do you openly sympathize with government officials?

JB: Public land managers and biologists are often forced to make decisions they know are wrong because of political pressure and come to depend on activists to stop them from doing things they feel personally terrible about. Legendary Oregon environmentalist Andy Kerr used to refer to the phenomenon of agency people secretly helping environmentalists as the “Stop me before I kill again” syndrome.

 

Jim Britell has written a three-volume series entitled “Organize to Win.” Volumes 1 and 2 of that series can be downloaded for free at britell.com/publications/. Mark Dowie, a former director of Greenpeace and president of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, lives on the outskirts of Willow Point.