The days when the staff of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources routinely bullied members of the public may not be quite over, but DNR secretary Cathy Stepp says tremendous progress has been made during her tenure, and she says realignment and job accountability measures have given the public a new level of participation and input in agency decision-making.
There are still challenges, Stepp told The Lakeland Times in a recent interview, but changes are steadily ensuring that new attitudes at the top permeate the entire organization, from top to bottom.
"In an organization of our size, and it doesn't matter if it is a government entity or a privately held business or organization, you're always going to have some people who don't buy into the philosophies of their top management," Stepp said. "That's something I knew coming into this job six years ago. I will tell you that changing hearts and minds is a long battleship turnaround-type project, but the things that I am most thankful for and proud of of our team is that we have implemented business management practices that will ensure that the philosophies from the top are carried all the way through all levels of the department."
Stepp points to such things as line reporting through the divisions, in which 'functional' bureau leaders can communicate directly with staff in the field performing that function without first negotiating a regional bureaucracy. While not providing a sexy headline, she says line reporting is critical in making sure there is staff accountability.
"When I walked in the door six years ago, DNR was set up like five different regions, different DNRs with their own little DNR secretaries as the regional directors and you cannot effectively run a corporation that is clear in its directive and its mission and its actions that they carry out - the way they answer the questions of the people who do business with them - when you have that many bosses, if you will," she said.
"So we had to make changes there through all of the different divisions and through all the different things that we do and we have done that."
Stepp says even the way her job is viewed has changed over the course of six years.
"My job is not manage the natural resources," she said. "It's to manage the people that manage the natural resources, and this is really the first administration that has looked at this particular position of secretary in that way. So as much grief as I get that, you know, she's not a biologist, she's not a geologist, those aren't the people who run organizations or that you want doing that, and the geologists and biologists that work for us don't necessarily want someone who is hawking over their shoulder, criticizing their intricate day-to-day technical work."
What's needed, Stepp says, is somebody who has more of a "higher-elevation outlook" on management and on the interactions of DNR staff and the people they serve.
"We've got a lot of customers," she said. "I say it all the time. Every man, woman, or child who lives here, works here, makes things here, or plays here is our customer. That's everybody, so with that comes challenges, understandably, and we regulate our customers. That's a challenge for any organization."
Nonetheless, Stepp says, the agency has made a lot of progress.
"I will never say it's perfect, but I will tell you we have come a long way with accountability measures, with performance reviews so that our staff understands what is expected of them," she said. "They are held to account with measurable metrics so that they understand what success looks like. That was never in place until we walked in the door."
Again, she says, not all staff buy into the proposition, and changing attitudes remains a challenge.
"But if we keep those accountability measures in place, and we keep metrics in place, if we keep requirements of public interaction as a much more pronounced aspect of their jobs, I think we can only see improvements," she said.
On another issue, DNR deputy secretary Kurt Thiede says counties are wrapping up rewrites of their shoreland zoning ordinances to comply with new state laws.
For the most part, it's a housekeeping operation, Thiede said, though some counties continue to chafe under restraints placed on their regulatory authority by the Legislature.
"One of the first steps was to get ordinances from each county to come forward and then what we had to do was check that against the shoreland zoning rules and the new rules of engagement established by the Legislature," Thiede said. "The latest count is, we are only missing two counties that have yet to submit ordinances. That's positive."
Thiede says some counties have yet to have their ordinances approved by the county board, so the agency is following up.
"So what I would say right now is that we are making good progress," he said. "We do have the ability under statute to extend the time period (which is the end of January), which we probably will do as we try to get some of these county board votes to take place and also to respond to some of the ordinances where we feel they are not quite matching up to NR115."
Some counties would still like to regulate beyond NR115 minimums, but that's not in the cards, Thiede said.
"We've been hearing some concerns from counties that may want stricter ordinances, but that's not the directive that we've been given from the Legislature," he said.
And Stepp says the DNR is being careful not to offer up policy prescriptions, in shoreland zoning or any other area, unless they are asked by lawmakers.
"At the end of the day, the policy direction is ultimately in the purview of the elected officials," she says. "Our job is to carry out the will of the elected officials. The policy direction is ultimately in their hands."
Sometimes, Stepp said, the agency gets asked to consider the specific aspects of a proposal.
"When we get asked about some of these more technical things, we bring in our technical people to provide the pros and cons of any particular initiative that a legislator of either political stripe might have, and so we provide information to them so that they can make a decision based on good data, but, again, I'm very careful about weighing in," she said. "It doesn't matter what my personal opinion is. I'm not a policy person like I was in the old days. My job now is to implement."
The agency has been undergoing a major realignment and part of that effort has been to reallocate resources to improve the agency's permitting programs, particularly when it comes to large agricultural facilities, Stepp and Thiede say.
"We're got a myriad of permits," Stepp said. "With some permit programs, we were struggling in the human resources area, and most notably on large agricultural facilities, which there has been a lot of print about, but we have already reallocated some resources internally to be able to address that shortfall, and that's been a legacy problem."
When she became DNR secretary, Stepp said, the water division alone had a vacancy rate of about 40 percent.
"Just staggering," she said. "So who was watching the environment in the previous administration? That has always been my question."
Stepp says the governor and the Legislature have been supportive of her efforts to reallocate resources where she can to bolster the permitting process, but she says with that reallocation has come performance measurements.
"So lots of our permit programs have improved, and the way that I know that is because we have actually instituted metrics, and it's metrics that the people who are permitted care about," she said. "So it's not just how long did it take you from your application date to actually get your permit or get an answer of denial. It's all about the pre-work that's done, too, because there's lots of back and forth with permit applicants to where, before we can deem it complete, there could sometimes be years of back and forth between DNR permit staff and permit applicants themselves, and that wasn't being measured."
As a former builder, Stepp said that years-long timeline was unacceptable.
"We needed to be able to measure that beginning phase as well as from the date we deem it a complete application to doing a decision," she said. "And now that we are seeing those things being measured, we are seeing definite performance measures being put in place to ensure that we are far better meeting the needs of an applicant. That doesn't mean that people are always going to get a 'yes,' and people don't expect that - they want to work within the confines of the law - but they sure deserve an answer in a timely manner because in business time is money."
In addition to quicker permitting turnarounds, Thiede said the agency has been working to improve consistency in permit decisions.
"It's fine if we are turning our permits around, but if you are getting a response in one part of the state that is different from that in another, those are the other things we have been trying to focus on, and I think we are heading in the right direction," he said. "I point to the air program, for instance, where we hadn't been seeing efficient turnaround time in the northeastern part of the state. As a result of paying attention to that and allocating resources, whether it is consistency as well as speed in being able to turn around a permit, things are headed in the right direction, but it's always a work in progress, and so we have to continue to measure and adapt and put systems in place to make sure we keep doing better."
The DNR is again proposing to raise state park admission fees, which has prompted criticism from some Democratic lawmakers, but Stepp says she would like to see them put a side dish of alternatives on their menu of criticism.
"I challenge those legislators, whatever party they are from, to sit down with us," Stepp said. "We'd be happy to talk with them about some innovative ideas that they may have. We were directed by the Legislature to come up with a report on the status of our parks account and what ideas we might have as to being able to raise additional revenues for our park system. So we did that. Now I throw this back to the policymakers to say, 'Here are some ideas, here are some things that we have uncovered from other states from looking around the country to try and find some things that might work here in Wisconsin.'"
Stepp points out that it's their decision to make anyway.
"At the end of the day, they are the elected officials," she said. "They decide if it is appropriate to raise fees, which I would argue would still be a fantastic bargain in Wisconsin for a family, even if we do raise fees. When we raised fees this last time, we didn't see a decrease in visitorship. In fact, we had either record or near-record attendance in our parks last year with 17 million visitors. You still can't buy that much fun for that much money for a family, and we want to make sure that we are funding the parks appropriately so that they maintain their status of being the jewels of the nation."
Thiede also said the DNR's new consolidated division of fish, wildlife and parks also makes sense - a move some have criticized, too.
"Why would parks be different from any other land mass that we manage?" Thiede asked. "Take a look around the country, and it's an organizational structure that we see fairly often, but what makes sense for us here in Wisconsin is that it is a land base that needs management, and it provides recreation and that can come in the way of camping and hunting, so when you take a look at some of the emphasis that's taken place recently, it's been about maximizing recreation on all our properties and not trying to treat one property type special or different from another. And that's what we're looking at with alignment, to maximize our resources. We've got folks who can focus on habitat management, folks who can focus on forestry, and then letting our recreation folks focus on what they do best, which is recreation."
Finally, Stepp rebuts those who say the DNR's plan to use private consultants to help draft environmental permits lets larger farms write their own permits. Stepp says the consultants will focus on the technical and modeling aspects of a permit application, which it is their business to know, and that they must be approved to participate in the program.
"We still retain all the regulatory authority," Stepp says. "The only thing we're talking about doing is what all organizations of any size do regularly, and of course government doesn't, which is to sit down, take a look at what your assets and liabilities are, what are your human resource capacities, what are the products you are charged to deliver, and then evaluate if there is a better way to deliver those products. Should you still be delivering all the same products or should you make different decisions there?"
That what the alignment is all about, Stepp says.
"It was about taking a look at the existing pot of money we've got, not looking to get more money because that is a typical response you see across the country from agencies like ours that just doesn't work," she said. "There are a lot of competing forces for that same pot of money, so we needed to change the discussion and go through this very worthwhile, very challenging and detailed process, so that I could present to policymakers a business plan upon which they could make better decisions about how we better use our human resources."
The use of private consultants is an important part of that plan, Stepp said.
"For example, in our large animal feeding operation permitting process, instead of having my staff stuck under fluorescent lights in their cubicles is to allow the consultants whom these producers already engage and spend thousands and thousands of dollars with, to come up with the technical side, the groundwater modeling - the manure application amounts and locations - and to allow them to do that after they have gone through an arduous and very detailed approval process to be able to get their name on a list of assured contractors, if you will," she said.
The program is not unique, Stepp says.
"It's just like we've been doing in Wisconsin on wetland delineations for 10 years, and you haven't seen all kinds of parking lots go in as a result of that," she said. "So these are professionals who have private sector experience, a lot of regular interactive and updated training in their profession, and allowing them to do more of that technical side so my folks don't have to go in and redo all that technical submission, that we can rely on that information when it comes to writing the permit."
There's lots of facets to large facility permits, Stepp said, and that facet takes a lot of DNR desk time.
"Instead, my people could far be better protecting the environment if they are out on the ground working with producers, making sure there's compliance with what's actually written in those permits instead of checking boxes and shuffling paper," she said. "So really it's just a matter to me of, who's protecting the environment better? I would say that when we have more of our folks out on the ground interacting with the people who are producing, we're doing a far better job."
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