Thursday, October 28, 2010

Controversy and Resolution - Lessons from a Year at the Commission

Anjali Patel recently completed a one year, Sea Grant fellowship at the Great Lakes Commission and has now moved onto a law firm in DC. I caught up with her this week to get her perspective on the fellowship and what she’d learned about science and policy in the Great Lakes region.

“This was just a good year to be a the Commission – between the growing interest in wind energy, the federal restoration initiative, ballast water regulations and Asian carp there was just a steady stream of really interesting work!” said Anjali. “By the end of the year, I realized I had worked with just about everyone on staff on some type of project.”

Anjali started her work at the Commission in the summer of 2009, just after securing her law degree from the University of Michigan. Anjal has a history of working with communities and non-profit organizatinons, but interstate compact agencies, interjurisdictional cooperation, and multi-stakeholder consensus building was a whole new game.

From day one of the fellowship, she was thrown into a series of contentious Great Lakes issues at the science-policy interface. I asked her what surprised her most about this new world.

“I was really struck by how small the community is,” Anjali said. She quickly became familiar with the players because she often saw the same people at meetings, even when the topics were very different, such as wind development and Asian Carp. Staff and time are limited, so leaders from state agencies and NGOs often had to be experts on many different topics.

This one observation – about the intimacy and overlap within the Great Lakes environmental policy community – is connected to many of Anjali’s other observations.

We’ve all witnessed the ebb and flow of political will, but this became a driver of Anjali’s daily work life. When she began the fellowship, there was a growing momentum to develop strict rules for ballast water in ships travelling into the Great Lakes. Anjali took a maternity leave mid fellowship and when she returned, this work had been completely eclipsed by concerns for Asian carp. I asked her what she thought was driving the shifting attention, is it driven by the media? Anjali thinks it is partly a function of the small community. Staff time is limited, so when a crisis comes up, energy is diverted from other less urgent issues. The Great Lakes region can only make progress on a few issues simultaneously, particularly if progress requires regional consensus and coordination.

Anjali got to watch how regional negotiations unfold. The Commission helped assist the Great Lakes states and provinces in developing a single resolution about Asian carp and the needed response. Commissioners from all ten Great Lakes states and provinces were able to agree that the best permanent solution for the health of both the Mississippi River and Great Lakes watersheds is ecological separation. Given the disagreement over short term solutions, the parties engaged in multiple conversations in which they expressed their underlying concerns and goals in order to craft language which was acceptable to all. 

“The Commission has a history of successfully building consensus and it was fascinating to see how it’s done. The sides weren’t nearly as polarized as the media portrayed, but it took face to face meetings to find the commonalities.”

Anjali was also really struck by the friendliness of Great Lakes community, despite the controversies. “People treat each other with respect even when things get heated. It might be the Midwest style.” She also had another explanation. Because the community is small, two people might be on opposing sides of the current issue, but find themselves on the same side of the next issue. So people tred lightly. Your enemies today might be your allies tomorrow. Rather than large polarized groups facing off over a controversial issue, discussions involved people who had established relationships that they wanted to maintain.

Before I said good bye to Anjali, I asked how her experiences and observations would help her in her new job with an energy law firm in DC. She said the Commission has trained her to write more quickly and cogently, a skill every lawyer needs. And her work with the Great Lakes Wind Collaborative will be a bonus as her law firm begins to focus on alternative energy issues. She also feels the fellowship has given her a broader perspective on how policy, industry and NGOs fit together. So when she’s focusing on the needs of a particular energy company she can see how it fits into the bigger picture. “I can now see how and why things happen and who makes it happen. And that’s just interesting.”

You can read more about Anjali’s work in these reports:

Report – The Role of Ports for Wind Energy
Prospectus – The Great Lakes Wind Collaborative

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