Finding a way to say 'yes'
Agencies Build Agreements at Governor's Kitchen Table

I saw great need for those animosities and complex issues to be resolved, issues in which responsibilities are not exclusive but shared, and jurisdictions are concurrent, not isolated.

In thinking through a way to resolve some of these issues, I reminisced about the informal get-togethers around the kitchen table, where what is said is what people decide to act on, and wondered if we could use that approach to get agencies to work together, rather than at each other.

Thus began the Wyoming Governor's Kitchen Table Conference.

The Kitchen Table Conference became an annual event, and in my years as Governor it resulted in a considerable amount of coordination and mutual understanding on issues related to land and natural resource management.

The lead-up to that first kitchen table gathering began well before my first term in office.

Since the Sagebrush Rebellion in 1979—when five western state legislatures passed bills calling for wresting control of many federal lands from agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, and bringing it under state jurisdiction—the level of hostility and mistrust aimed at the federal government had been mounting. Even today, dominance of federal land ownership and concurrent jurisdiction over much of the land in the west continues to produce complex policy issues that legislative mandates, or even rebellions, have been unable to resolve successfully.

When I became Governor I was well aware of these issues, and of the animosity surrounding land and resource management policies. Each of us had a job to do but we weren't communicating with one another. We weren't cooperating.

As I began floating the idea of bringing people together, I encountered significant resistance by some of the federal managers, particularly in the nation's capitol. They would cite the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which they believed required such strict notification and process requirements about when federal agencies could meet that it caused them to NOT get together, even though they shared many of the same interests and obligations. Individual agencies were asking private citizens and other agencies, independently and separately, for the same information and data, despite the duplicative effort and without regard for the impact that each might have on the other.

So we began the Kitchen Table process. I invited federal and state agency directors and their staffs who worked in Wyoming, along with some regional managers, to come to Cheyenne for a conversation about finding ways to offer more efficient and effective public service. I was surprised to discover that the restrictions under FACA were much more manageable if the meetings were initiated at the request of the Governor.

I began every meeting by asking people to describe their backgrounds, what their careers had been like, and what they cared about. Participants discovered they had far more in common than in conflict, and took an interest in one another almost immediately. Personal and professional tensions also began to disappear when people realized their common interests and dedication to the public we all served.

Ahead of each meeting, we identified priority issues that we felt were important to address collaboratively. At the first Kitchen Table Conference we discovered that natural resource plans requiring reports such as environmental assessments and environmental impact statements also required collection and analysis of data that were seldom being re-used or shared.

Early on in my term, federal managers would call my scheduler and request time to "update" me on their plans and progress. I did not want to be "updated;" I wanted to be involved from the beginning so we could understand one another and coordinate in order to avoid conflict. I wanted our Wyoming folks to be directly involved in developing strategies and providing a way to evaluate the impact on local economic and social issues. Besides these irritating "updates" I received, projects were evaluated based on data gathered by each individual agency, even though they relied on information from the same sources.

So I asked the question: Why aren"t we sharing data?

We discovered it was a rare case when one agency's analytical tools and data formats were compatible with another's. One answer to my data-sharing question was that agencies lacked a common digital base map on which all social, environmental, and economic information could be tracked. Another response was that agencies lacked agreements and mechanisms to share data.

One year after our first meeting we began to initiate data-sharing agreements. The first of those agreements was between the State of Wyoming and the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM had accumulated several million dollars worth of data that other agencies could now use and re-use.

But after one year and nearly no use of that wealth of data, I again asked "Why?" I was told then that even though agencies had some common analytical tools, the data were collected in differing and often incompatible formats.

To resolve this issue, participants worked to develop standards for data collection across agencies and set up repositories for interagency access. That paved the way for formal data-sharing agreements between the State of Wyoming and six federal agencies. The irony was that each federal agency had to sign its own separate agreement, while the State was able to sign as a single entity in every instance, because we shared data among ourselves.

We thought the federal government should also act as a single entity, and should have a standardized approach to natural resource management. The fact that it does not is one of western states' biggest frustrations with their federal counterparts. Federal agencies have typically operated myopically, with unique cultures, missions, and management strategies, making it difficult for them to reach consensus among themselves, let alone with other jurisdictions.

Yet the Kitchen Table Conferences managed to produce extraordinary consensus and agreement. Every year, I invited one of the federal regional managers to co-chair, along with me, the upcoming meeting focused on a specific issue. I made it clear I would participate fully at every meeting, and set the expectation that others should make participation a high priority. Indeed, that strength of commitment to the process, and to consensus-based results, led to such tangible and positive change that the meetings became the top draw every spring.

While the process itself was successful, we also achieved varied and far-reaching results focusing on purpose, not just process. We set up air quality forums to model the effects of air masses migrating into the state and their influence on in-state energy development. We developed strategies for dealing with multiple species habitat restoration, rather than simply looking at each possible threatened or endangered specie in isolation. We resolved a number of forest health issues, and agreed on road improvements to and inside Yellowstone Park. We facilitated the U.S. Forest Service and BLM in developing a common regulatory environment for doing reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The toughest and most sensitive issues were resolved with personal and professional courtesy, not just dueling sciences.

Our successes at the Kitchen Table were fostered by a basic attitude that's typical in the West: you don't let things fester. When we see something that needs to be done, we find a way to do it. Building on the tradition of working things out at the kitchen table, agencies found ways to communicate and cooperate, thus avoiding the arbitrary and bureaucratic entanglements that cause conflict—and rebellion—to fester.

Our efforts were guided, too, by a philosophy espoused by my Transportation Director, Sleeter Dover. Dover's approach to management was: "Find a way to say yes."

Because both federal and state offices seemed so good at finding ways to say 'no', Dover's attitude struck a chord. At the Kitchen Table, and in the Governor's Office, that attitude helped us focus on solutions and, ultimately, on building successful models for federal/state agency cooperation.