First of two parts
As 2012 draws to a close, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources secretary Cathy Stepp has surveyed the government landscape that is her agency, and, quite like a proud farmer viewing a full field of ripened crop, she says she is proud of her work these past two years.
Stepp says the seeds she and her management team planted almost two years ago have sprouted and the roots of reform have taken hold inside the agency, making it a much different, and better, place than the one she inherited in early 2011.
Morale is improved, customer service is better, technological change is quick and cutting edge, and certainty rules the day with the private sector – chalk it all up, Stepp says, to a committed endeavor to change the culture of an agency once well-known for being among the most hated and feared in the state.
As she looks back, Stepp gives a lot of credit to Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to convert the DNR from a moribund bureaucracy into an enterprise agency in which officials were given the flexibility to reshape the way the department was managed.
“This ability was given to us by the governor and the Department of Administration to allow us to manage DNR like you’d manage a business,” Stepp told The Lakeland Times in a recent interview. “... we were given those abilities to manage the department in our fleet and how we manage all the vehicles that we run and how we get employees to and from job sites, how do we get them out to service the public and provide that service, whether it’s inspections or advice or whatever it might be, and then also in facilities management.”
In the past, for example, the DOA managed DNR facilities, Stepp said, and it didn’t make sense to have a middle man do what the DNR should have been doing.
“How is it if we’re (DNR) building buildings or managing buildings, do we really need another layer of bureaucracy of the Department of Administration layered on, which adds costs to those facilities,” she said. “So, we would have to put on, say, like a 4-percent add-on fee that the taxpayers were ultimately paying, and we weren’t seeing a value for that. …We’ve got very competent folks who run our fleet team and who also run our facilities teams who know how to manage those things.... In fact, our fleet managers, one of them used to run national fleet operations for a very, very large, well-known gas station company that I probably shouldn’t say the name of here, and is extraordinarily competent.”
The same is true in other department sections as well, Stepp said, and so, to boil it all down, it was about bringing private-sector business management practices into government for the first time.
To be sure, she added, that’s a laborious task.
“So, we got to take baby steps on this first one, and we’ve seen extraordinary responses and we’re exceeding the expectations that we set,” Stepp said.
Another aspect of the enterprise agency idea is to implement the so-called Lean Six Sigma synergized managerial concept, which Stepp said is about embracing private-sector manufacturing practices.
“For (those who) might not be familiar, that is about evaluating every step of every process, whether that’s permit applications or building a building or whatever it might be, and looking to see where there are steps that are in the process that have developed over time – because some of these things take on a life of their own – that don’t add any value to the process, and all it does is stall or clog a system,” she said. “And so, companies have been doing this for a long time. Government is just now finally getting on the bandwagon and understanding there’s real value there.”
As all levels of government are forced to downsize, officials have to learn how to do things better, smarter, and more effectively, Stepp said.
“That means using more general permits, for example, identifying and acknowledging that not every project in Wisconsin is building a rocket ship, that people can put a culvert in at the end of their driveway without having to hire an engineer,” she said.
Stepp cited what she thinks is one of the greatest attributes of the Lean process: It forces officials to engage their employees, the people who do the work every day, an important feature, Stepp says, because they’re the ones who know where the snags are.
“They’re the ones who know it shouldn’t have to go to four inboxes to get to the end decision maker,” she said. “If it’s going to four inboxes – you know, quantify, qualify – why is that? Is there value? If not, get rid of it. We’re seeing air permits, I think we’re meeting at 100 percent, or 90 percent on-time for our air construction permits, and that’s including public notice period, as well.”
Stepp said that represents extraordinary gains in its air permitting process.
“Why does that matter?” she asked. “Because that’s economic development. Companies who produce anything usually have to have an air-construction permit. If they’re going to emit anything out of any stack, they have to get a permit through us. If it’s a large source, it’s us and EPA, and those take a little bit longer, but the majority of them are not. No longer is it OK to say, ‘Well, this is just how long it takes. We’ve always done it this way.’ Not acceptable anymore.”
All the difference
The change makes all the difference in the world, Stepp said.
“This is why the Lean processes and the enterprise agency designation allow us a little more elbow room, get more government out of the way, which is DOA, and let us manage and show you how we can perform, and we are excelling,” she said. “So, I’m excited about this because that means I’m going to go back in to the governor and say, ‘Look, we’re just really kicking it here, man, and we’re seeing not just better response time, which will result in job creation, but more importantly is that we’ve got men and women out from under fluorescent lights in cubicles and out onto the stream banks overseeing projects, which is where they belong, and that is environmental protection and enhancement.”
When employees understand their workload, when the work of teams is prioritized, when the agency is able to simplify processes so that employees can get out and see things with their own eyes versus words on a page – all that leads to better-informed decisions, Stepp said.
“It’s all the better for job creation and environmental protection,” she said. “It’s a huge win-win.”
What’s more, the secretary said, the enterprise designation and management adjustments enable DNR officials to control costs.
“We’re seeing millions of dollars saved just in the first year and a half,” Stepp said. “Actually, it’s just been a year and a couple months.”
She pointed to a newly won ability to jettison outdated and arbitrary state purchasing rules, such as a mandate to buy new rather than used vehicles.
“You would never make that decision if you’re a private business owner, and you’d never make a decision and say, ‘I’m going to buy new cars whether I need them or not,’” Stepp said. “I don’t know how many of your readers have the luxury of that, but I take the purse of the taxpayer very seriously. That’s wasteful. We’re now able to go out and buy used cars, believe it or not. We couldn’t do that before.”
In addition, the agency can now itself determine when a car is ready to be transferred out of the system and a different vehicle brought in, she said.
“What this has allowed us to do is actually increase the number of vehicles that our employees have access to, because the problems that we were having is, we would have people calling and saying, ‘I need your employee out here, I need to have an inspection done on my facility,’ and our employee would call back to that person and say, ‘Can you give me a ride because I don’t have a vehicle?’ Now, what kind of environmental protections were happening then? None. So, let us manage this and get our workforce out the way we can get our workforce out the best, get DOA out of the way, and we’re reaping millions in benefits.”
Stepp said the business community has been enthused about the enterprise designation and has offered valuable suggestions, many of which the DNR has adopted.
“The other thing we’ve done that is a little bit part and parcel with this enterprise agency is that we’ve now launched business sector team specialists so that when we hear about companies who are looking to locate or existing companies who are looking to expand and they’ve got questions about permitting and what is it going to take, we assemble rapid-response teams of our internal professionals who know, say, the dry-cleaning business or a printing business or whatever it might be that you’re manufacturing,” Stepp said. “They know what kind of air permits you’re going to need, what water permits you’re going to need, and then we have a single point of contact.”
All of which introduces certainty into the system, Stepp said.
“(People) just want to know – tell me the rules, here’s my timeline, can you meet it or not, government?” she said. “And we’re going to say, ‘Well, we’re going to need a little bit more time here,’ or maybe we’re going to say, ‘We’re not only going to meet your timeline, we’re going to beat it, and we’re going to be there with you every step of the way to help you succeed in getting the permits that you need.’ See, we’ve got to become a permitting agency mentality instead of a prohibiting agency mentality.”
It’s a whole different way of looking at what the agency does, she said, and, as they do that well, the state will enjoy job creation and more dollars will flow back to the agency to fund programs everyone cares about.
Stepp says staff morale has recovered right along with the DNR’s public image.
“I do have to give my hats off to staff, because, in fairness, when I looked at what the staffing levels were around the state and I saw that we had 40 percent vacancy rates in the water division alone, you can’t expect people – they’re human beings – you cannot expect them to continue to do the job of two and three full-time employees for very long,” she said. “I will tell you, we have heroes that work for us at DNR, people who are very committed, not just of their minds to their jobs but of their spirits. These are careers for our folks. They love what they do. But you can only do so much, and it’s no wonder when people say, ‘I wasn’t getting return calls and nobody would come out to my site.’ Well, there was nobody in the cube to answer the phone.”
With the support of the governor and the Legislature, staffing levels are up, though the DNR is still not where it needs to be, she said.
“We’ve got turnover that we’re experiencing, like the private sector, due to the baby-boom generation moving on,” Stepp said. “We still have a statistic that just about 50 percent of our staff could retire today due to age or how many years of service they’ve got.”
The good news is, Stepp added, that means the DNR has opportunities for new people to obtain agency employment, and to bring in fresh ideas and new perspectives.
“But the best news is that we’re actually putting feet into the boots that are on the ground now for the first time, and that’s going to way bring down your complaints,” she said. “The other thing is, by encouraging staff – in fact, requiring them but empowering them – to be service oriented, I can’t tell you how many hundreds of our staff around the state have said, ‘Cathy, I always wanted to be helpful, but I was flat-out told that I didn’t have the time in my day to do that, so it was easier to say no than to say, Here’s how.’”
It’s all common sense, Stepp said.
“We’ve got to get those folks supported because they love what they do, they love the state, they’re members of every single community, they’re in your churches, and they’re in your schools as parents of kids that your kids go to school with,” she said. “These are just men and women who love our state like we do. They just needed to have the support and empowerment and channeling of that energy in a way that is partnering with economic development and environmental protection.”
Though she likes the headway being made within the agency, Stepp says there is still work to do. That means she has to join her staff on the road around the state, making sure she has her own fingers on the pulse of the people.
“My job is to make sure that I’m out and about, that I spend very little time in Madison, and that’s not only for my own mental well-being, but also so I can make sure that I know what’s happening out there across the state, and finding out where we’ve still got struggles,” Stepp said. “We’re always going to have struggles, we’re always going to have challenges, but, you know, if we’ve got the attitude that we can be on the same side of the table looking at things together on how to succeed together, then everybody wins, and it’s so simple to me. Why everybody isn’t 1000 percent behind me, I don’t know, but that’s just how it is, but I’m going to keep persevering and keep pushing, because the benefits for quality of life for generations to come are just enormous.”
Richard Moore may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org