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Origins and Outcomes

By Eleanor Mahoney October 3, 2016

In researching the history of post World War II protected area management in the U.S., I’ve begun to think more and more about how the particular origins of a program or initiative can affect its ultimate ability to succeed in the long term. More specifically, I wonder if efforts that have their impetus outside the agency ultimately tasked with program management suffer as a result, especially if the initiative in question differs significantly from other agency responsibilities.

A good example of this phenomenon is the various heritage park and area programs that took shape in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. In many cases, these efforts marked a large departure from traditional approaches to park management. Park agencies did not “own” the resources (or if so, it was only a few buildings) nor did they manage the efforts independently – usually partnerships were involved. Most, though not all, of these efforts originated within local communities or with interested legislators, not among agency personnel.

As a result, and perhaps not surprisingly, disinterest or even hostility developed. With financial and staff resources scarce, why would time and money be dedicated to programs perceived (by some) as well outside an agency’s core mission? Such reactions were not universal, but they were widespread enough to pose a serious challenge – especially after community and / or legislative leaders moved on to other areas of foci. Once the pressure and attention from outside waned, innovative programs could be left in a vulnerable position. Unless staff within an agency stepped up to take the lead, monies and technical assistance withered. However, in cases where the agency personnel had been central to program creation, they often served as champions of the effort and could help sustain it through moments of fiscal austerity.

What does this all mean? I’m interested to know what others who have worked on innovative or non-traditional programs think about it. Can bureaucratic culture change? Does getting institutional buy-in make sense if doing so dilutes or weakens the approach under consideration? How can the desires of those pushing for change or new approaches outside an agency work with longtime staff and decision makers within that entity to be successful?

 

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