Changing Public Policy

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

We, as public administrators, are living in unprecedented times when change is a central part of life.

It has been my experience that changing public policy can be compared to doing a U-turn with one of the Navy’s Nimitz-class, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

An Intro To Carrier Life

The Nimitz class boasts the largest carriers, called Supercarriers. The USS George H. W. Bush, for example, is nearly 1,100 feet long, almost four football fields end-to-end. It’s about 250 feet at its widest point. Its dual nuclear reactors and eight shaft and steam turbines can propel this titan at more than 30 knots, top speed.

On the decks of these floating cities--population about 5,000--are fixed-wing jets and rotary helicopters, the equipment to maintain, launch, and secure them, and the personnel to conduct operations.

Anyone who has been on the deck of an aircraft carrier during flight operations knows it is a very dangerous place to work, even under normal circumstances. If the ship makes a hard turn to change course, anything not battened down will slide overboard. It’s a physics thing.

So the captain needs to know how fast he can turn without upsetting the apple cart, or bomb racks, more appropriately. It’s situational. If he’s trying to dodge a torpedo, all bets are off--hang on to what you have because we’re making a hard left. But in routine situations, making a one-degree turn at normal speed will take about three minutes, and nobody on-board will even notice.

Resisting Change

Changing public policy is similar to changing course, and recreation professionals who understand the principle experience a much smoother turn than those who choose, or are forced, to make that hard left at the point of crisis.

Charging fees for services is one area where change is not often well-received. In these tough economic times, most of us have had to deal with this issue. Public attitudes range from “Everything should be free; it’s why I pay taxes” to “I should pay a lower fee than others because (insert special cause).”

Many administrators may also be facing cutting hours. This approach saves money, staff time and operating costs, but can also cut into the daily routines of people who have become accustomed to using that service at a certain time of day. Thus, for them it is a reduction in service.

In order to pick up the slack caused by the lack of government funding for important programs, such as youth sports, field and facility routine maintenance, capital improvements, staffing and general cleanup, we have been relying more heavily on volunteer organizations.

The Right Attitude

As Winston Churchill once said, “There is nothing wrong with change, as long as it’s in the right direction.” The “right direction,” though, is often interpreted differently, so the trick for public administrators is to make a change that the majority of people agree is right, or at least a compromise they can live with.

Attitude and time are two elements especially important for a public administrator. The captain of that aircraft carrier plans ahead before he makes his turn, has a confident attitude when he gives the order, and, short of an emergency, allows plenty of time for the crew to change course.

If you, as a public administrator, have a positive attitude and pass that on to all involved, and have plentiful time to air out all the issues surrounding a change, there will be a fair chance of arriving at a change most can live with. You’ll never please everybody, but you can at least try to reach the majority.

Allowing all stakeholders affected by the change to have their say in a meeting makes a significant difference, even for an administrator. I have often gone into such a meeting with one opinion, and walked out with a different view.

As a wise instructor once told me, “The world you see depends on where you stand,” so you sometimes have to move away from what you believe, and listen to others involved in the process. In public policy there are often more than two sides to a story.

Perfect Timing

Time is also important in making effective changes. The carrier captain needs about three minutes to smoothly change the ship’s course without throwing his crew overboard. Public administrators need ample time as well.

Changes brought on by “knee-jerk” reactions to a situation often result in backtracking and changing the change. Time will be dictated by subject matter. Sometimes changes are so radical that a year or more may be necessary to identify stakeholders, isolate issues, organize discussion groups, and really massage the subject. Sometimes the changes can be completed in a matter of weeks or months.

Often, an issue will be presented as a “crisis,” but when it is further discussed, it really isn’t a crisis at all. Or, maybe one aspect of the overall issue may need immediate attention, but other aspects can be given a longer time frame.

So, like the ship’s captain, the public administrator has to decide whether an issue demands an emergency change, how much time is needed to make a reasonable course change, and how to use the functional tools available to maintain a steady course.

I suspect that seasoned public administrators who read this magazine have advice and practical applications on how to make effective change. If you’d like to share, contact me or the PRB staff.

Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail