Is it possible to transform a culture?
My investigation of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) this past year has affirmed my belief that Tahoe residents love Lake Tahoe deeply and support efforts to help preserve it.
The study has also revealed that a wide swath of the populace currently believes the agency assigned with this task is out of control, arrogant, unaccountable and ready to retaliate against any who challenge its decisions. These may or may not be overstatements. But it is clear from reading more than 100 unsolicited letters and e-mails that this is the perception of many who live or have property at the Lake.
This perception alone is a serious problem, especially in a country where government is to be “of, by, and for” the people. To the extent that this perception is rooted in reality, the situation is nothing short of scandalous.
Fixing a problem always begins with identifying its root. That’s not easy with all of the complex issues swirling around TRPA. But Tahoe residents’ concerns, grievances and fears keep pointing in a consistent direction: toward a pervasive attitude that within the agency it needs answer to no one but itself.
Studies consistently show that bureaucracies tend to develop their own “culture.” They form patterns of conducting business, attitudes toward clients, redefinitions of their agency’s mission and preferred means of carrying it out. New leaders come and go, and new directives are given from the top, but the people serving in the bowels of organization remain the same. These bureaucrats often have immense power to determine the success or failure of the policies laid out by elected leaders.
The affairs at TRPA have fallen victim to this same “culture dilemma.” Executive directors and board members have come and gone; meanwhile, staff has largely preserved their own methods, attitudes and view of the world.
I recently convened a meeting of many of the consultants in the basin that help citizens process permits before the TRPA. Some of their specific recommendations will be discussed in a future article. However, all were in agreement that there are many dedicated employees at the agency who treat each applicant fairly and impartially.
But the group also expressed that there are others on staff that seem to be guided by a deep seated “culture of control.” This culture seems to feel itself heir to a God-given responsibility to protect the lake according to its own vision of perfection. It is as if the lake belongs to them. And their zeal stands unchecked by the TRPA board, basic fairness or common sense.
As a result of recent appointments, a fresh perspective has emerged on the TRPA board. This new consensus seems ready to reform the agency’s “business as usual” approach. It is seeking to ensure that TRPA become balanced, fair-minded and customer friendly to people of goodwill.
However, the deeply-rooted “culture” of portions of the staff could thwart this effort. The board must address this dynamic directly and hold the entire staff accountable to implement policies that are fair and respectful. If TRPA is to regain its luster as a customer-friendly agency, the new board consensus will need to insist on reform and the executive director must insure that it is carried out.
Reforming a culture is never easy, but there are strong signs that TRPA is trying to achieve this goal. Let’s all hope the agency can self-reform without outside intervention.
– This is the fourth in a series of articles regarding the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency by California Assemblyman Tim Leslie. He can be contacted at http://www.timleslie.com.
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