How Should Public Agencies Funded by Users, Weigh Non-User Input For Decision Making?
An organization that participated in one of our recent monthly Clinics asked an interesting question:
“Agencies were created by the public, but many agencies are funded largely by users (i.e. hunting and fishing licenses). When there is disagreement, does the will of citizens trump the will of license holders?”
A fair question, as “fairness” is what’s really at the heart of it…
This goes back to something we brought up in the follow-up exercises to Clinic #89 (received by those who attended the live webinar, or are annual subscription holders)… And that is the history of the agency.
When you understand the actual origins of your organization, how it formed, it’s original mission and how that mission has evolved — you stand a better chance of getting your larger public to understand this, and why who funds the mission doesn’t impact decision-making.
Like many agencies, the mission of an organization that originated with self-taxing users (hunters, fishermen, boaters, etc.) has likely morphed over time.
Take for example, the Bureau of Reclamation (USBR)…
Originally, created to bring water out to arid areas during the settling of the western states, USBR’s mission then changed during the Great Depression to help support jobs and industry through the creation of public power.
A couple of generations later, with the Endangered Species Act of the 1970s, the USBR’s mission nearly took a 180-degree change as the very dams created by the agency were found to jeopardize salmon.
The same agency that had built the dams to assist farmers during the Homestead Act, were now dismantling those same dams and sending the water down river to protect species of fish.
At the time of the USBR’s creation, a problem had been identified: arid land being settled in the western part of the U.S. couldn’t be farmed without help to irrigate it through the creation of dams.
Later, another problem was identified: industry and jobs needed electricity. The agency that had built the dams, was identified as the right entity to address that problem — and so their mission broadened.
When the public concluded it was a problem that species were becoming endangered as a result of dams, the same agency (USBR), that built the dams was found to be the appropriate one to deconstruct them to protect those endangered species (and not the farmers they were originally mandated to protect!).
Back to the question at hand — whose input has more weight…?
A user who funds the agency, or the general public…?
The thing is, an agency that manages and protects natural resources likely has had such an evolution of its mission.
The percentage of people who hunt and fish, is on the decline. Yet, the public that benefits and appreciates wildlife continues to expand. What hasn’t happened for many such organizations, is an informed public discussion about the mission’s expansion.
When the public identifies either a problem, or an opportunity — such as the need for wildlife that is not for hunting, or is non-game — it will find or create an agency to address that problem/opportunity.
How we fund it, is somewhat immaterial!
It’s a separate conversation, but if it’s seen as a legitimate problem/opportunity — the public WILL find a way to fund it, with or without license fees.
Look at funding of public schools — it comes from property taxes, regardless of whether or not the taxpayer has children attending public schools. And parents of public-school students — who aren’t property owners — have just as much say as the taxpayers that fund those schools.
Society uses the same approach towards roads… Truckers pay more via gas taxes, but don’t have any more say about transportation projects than people with electric cars — who don’t pay any gas tax.
In fact, we can’t think of a single instance where what you pay, relative to a public agency, gives you more say than anyone else. Even if you have more at stake! (We wouldn’t rule it out, it’s just we can’t think of any at the moment.)
And sure, you can join the PTA, or a truckers’ lobbying group — and make your voice louder — but again, that doesn’t have to do with who much you pay through fees or taxes.
What’s happened isn’t that we’ve shirked a public discussion about “what’s fair?”… It’s that we, as a society, have concluded that we all benefit from children who attend good schools, whether or not the children are our own.
Similarly, don’t we all benefit from organizations that protect wildlife, even if we don’t hunt or fish that wildlife?
Departments of Fish & Game (or “Game & Fish” if you’re in landlocked states) have to bring their public and the policymakers along that the organization’s mission has changed over time. (This “public” includes the license-bearing hunters and fishermen.)
So if you’re agency is in a similar fix, where a minority of the population funds the agency through licenses and fees, it might be time to put your leadership skills to work and get the larger public, which benefits from the agency’s evolved mission, to start paying more of it’s share of the cost of that mission…
Missouri has done just that through a state wide tax that support their wildlife agencies, because they created such a public dialogue and the public concluded, everyone benefited from the mission of those agencies.
But you can’t jump into that conversation without first bringing the public up to speed on the history of the organization’s mission, its evolution, and who it now serves (i.e. that by creating a rich flora and fauna, you serve far more than hunters and fishermen).
Then, as a separate issue, the public and policymakers can worry about how to fund that broader mission.
Otherwise, the public will identify a need that (it perceives) isn’t being met and will create a parallel agency to replace you!
(Just look up the Soil Conservation Service — it easily could have served the same role as today’s EPA, but didn’t see a natural broadening of their mission and so the agency was ultimately decommissioned.)