A Session Reflection

Sine die is the constitutionally defined date that the legislative session ends. There is an interesting feeling of uneasy calmness at the Capitol. While a large percentage of bills died in the first session deadline in April, there are “zombie bills” still floating around. Zombie bills, are bills that were sent to either the Joint Ways and Means or the Rules committees, which aren’t subject to session deadlines. These bills are often kept alive because they have a very broad “Relating to…” clause, like “Relating to the environment” or “Relating to education”, and can be re-written later during the session.

Because zombie bills can be re-written, policies that may have died earlier in the session, may come back. For this reason, the “bad policies” that were a concern in the beginning of the session, could still be a threat. The importance of soft skills, like analyzing human interactions, has never been so clear to me. Some committees are receiving informational presentations about marine reserves and coastal tourism, and some are approving the Governor’s executive appointments some committees are kind of slow, kind of fast, and definitely ominous.

I’ve had the incredible opportunity to help with passing the Governor’s Environmental Protection Act, which seeks to prevent backsliding of state air and water quality standards that occur at the federal level. I’ve been tasked with developing testimony for Governor’s Office staff and floor speeches for legislators, brainstorming responses to potential opposition of the bill, and collaborating with state agencies to develop strategy. While the learning curve is steep, I feel like this have given me a crash course in communicating and developing policy.

What is the goal of the policy? Defining the goal of a policy is critical in ensuring effective development and outcome, as well as garnering support for the idea. What is the purpose? The next step, is to refine the policy by defining what the mechanisms that will be used to execute the goal. I have found that concise and clear marketing of a policy requires the integration of these two aspect. With 1,500 bills circulating during the session, it is impossible for legislators to understand the ins and outs of all of them. A common theme I have seen during committee hearings and floor votes is that legislators are unaware or unsure of what a policy is or does. Furthermore, when politics are concerned, sewing misinformation about a policy is an effective tool to stall or kill a bill.

In my short time observing the legislature, I’ve also been able to reflect on the degree to which messaging and public relations drive politics. The constant balance of context, timing, and substance is a delicate dance. The timing for the introduction of a policy is all dependent on the type of policy and the current political climate. For example, the timing and context of the Governor’s Environmental Protection Act was in direct response to the Trump Administration rolling back several clean air and water protections. The substance was also important, in that the Governor’s policy protected the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Safe Drinking Water Acts; three landmark environmental protection policies that, in general, are viewed positively and as necessary. The timing, context and substance of the policy were critically balanced in demonstrating the urgent need for it.

The Oregon Environmental Protection Act based both legislative chambers and was signed by Governor Kate Brown on March 24, 2019.

(Attempting) To Resolve Natural Resources Conflicts

I received an incredible opportunity to attend a portion of the annual meeting for the Oregon Chapter of The Wildlife Society. One event that particularly stood out to me was a workshop about building interpersonal and group communication skills for resolving conflict in natural resources. From my experience, natural resource conflict usually arises between industries, conservation, and regulatory bodies. Whether it be commercial fishing, ranching, logging, or farming, there is almost always and equal and opposite conservation voice, advocating for the revision of industry practices and policy and a government agency constrained by time, resources, and politics.

So how do high level policy makers leverage the interests of all stakeholders? While one side heavily supports multiple sectors of Oregon’s diverse economic profile, the other side may be categorically opposed to practices used to mitigate occupational hazards; for example, ranchers lethally removing grey wolves that threaten cattle. How do we mitigate what one group says is morally reprehensible and what the other group says is necessary for economic viability?

In conflict resolution, the strategy that you decide to use depends on the varying levels of importance that policy substance and maintaining relationships have at any given moment (Figure 1). Each strategy is appropriate in different situations, and representative of the time and resources available for the process. While collaboration is typically the goal for long-term, complex, and integrative problems, a competing strategy may be the most appropriate when an emergency is impending and a quick solution is critical.

Figure 1. Situation dependent conflict resolution strategies (adapted from www.mwi.org).

Evaluating and deciding which strategy to use requires a great deal of introspection and flexibility. It require a significant amount of self-awareness to determine if a policy detail is more important than one aspect of a relationship. In reflecting on which strategy I most often use, I typically fluctuate between compromising and competing. This has mainly been due to my short term involvement in different projects, where sustaining and building relationships are much less relevant to solving the acute problem at hand.

This workshop also gave me an opportunity to reflect on the fact that while I typically use the strategy that is most compatible with my personality, it is important to be flexible and utilize the strategy most compatible with the situation and groups I am interacting with. I’ve always been under the impression that collaboration was the best way to handle any problem, however, I did learn that avoiding conflict or accommodating another person’s viewpoint are equally acceptable and valid strategies.

This workshop left me with several lingering questions that will likely only be answered with extensive time and experience;

  • When collaboration is the best strategy, what do we do when groups are too polarized to value relationships?
  • Is it ever possible to fully compromise and how do we mitigate if one side feels like they’ve given up more than the other?
  • How do we effectively balance conflict resolution within agreeing and between opposing groups?

There may not be a right answer to any of these questions, but it is important to evaluate and possess enough self-awareness to contemplate the solutions and promote the development and growth of my own interpersonal communication skills.