By John Pappalardo
We all express frustration with the pace of government, how the wheels seem to turn too slowly if at all, how the process feels like a slog through mud, how weeks turn into months turn into years.
Believe me, there are times when I share that feeling.
But after decades of trying to be a change agent working within government’s structure, sitting in meeting after meeting year after year, I’ve also come to see that sometimes, maybe even often, there are reasons for the slow pace, and by that I mean decent reasons.
Dictators can move quickly. That’s because they don’t need consent, they don’t need compromise, they don’t need to listen. They don’t even need much in the way of information. All they need is an opinion. And then they can crack the whip.
If I were the dictator of fisheries management, it wouldn’t have taken more than 10 years to get a mid-water trawl buffer zone enacted, I can tell you that. It wouldn’t be taking that much time and more to identify and protect undersea habitats, or enact management with ecosystem-based thinking, or engage our industry much more directly in the research, surveys and science that drives policies.
It wouldn’t have taken nearly a decade to get an exemption area expanded on Georges Bank for General Category scallopers to be able to move farther east, a decision that literally everyone agrees should have been done long ago. Nor would it have taken a decade to acknowledge that lots of undersized fish caught on longlines or jigs can be released and swim away just fine, so mortality rates for those fisheries needed to be adjusted.
Note that the word “decade” seems to keep cropping up.
But from my vantage, these weren’t cases of public officials stalling, or decision-makers ignoring important issues. Often there was real conflict among people in the fisheries, livelihoods at stake, a difficult balance to be struck between what’s good for now and what’s good for tomorrow, what’s good for industry short-term and what’s good for stocks and the ecosystem long-term. In many cases real science needed to be conducted so we weren’t acting on a whim, or responding only to whomever has the most political clout.
Slow and clunky, the process had to allow for public input, discussions and confrontations. Meetings needed to be posted with ample notice and agendas. As new issues came up they needed to be posted again with new agendas, and just as much notice. The clock keeps ticking.
So this tedious process should be seen as a gatekeeper, not an obstacle. It should be an equalizer, not a barrier. It becomes the vehicle for that thing we call democracy, creating opportunity for public voices in decision-making. And like democracy itself, the old saying applies: It’s the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried.
Even the best decisions made behind closed doors become the worst decisions, because bad process undermines faith in the outcome. That in turn leads people to disrespect the rules and do their best to get around them.
All of this assumes that the slow-motion process is real rather than show, meaning there are no backdoor deals cut, no shortcuts taken by the privileged few. There’s the real danger, not the molasses of public participation. And that’s when cynicism about our government becomes justified.
There’s one more thing to be said: As people bemoan this cumbersome process, they almost always use the occasion to demean the people who work it. Public officials become slugs, shirkers, their motives and intentions questioned, their credibility and work ethic dismissed.
My experience is overwhelmingly the opposite. Most public officials I know, elected or appointed, regulators or scientists, at every level of government, have a strong desire to do the right thing, and represent the public as well as possible. They often do so for less money, with fewer resources, and with many more headaches than if they slid into the private sector. They deserve our thanks and support far more often than they get it, and they almost never deserve the ridicule and contempt that is all-too popular these days, all-too easy to dispense.
(John Pappalardo is CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance)