A progressive bureaucrat signs off

by Ed Marston

Daniel P. Beard, who resigns as commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation effective Sept. 1, snorted when asked the question he'd already heard dozens of times: "Why are you really resigning?" But the long-time reader of High Country News loosened up, and then talked for a half-hour, when publisher Ed Marston noted: "You've been one of Babbitt's most successful lieutenants. Water is incredibly controversial in the West, but it hasn't blown up under you, while grazing - which should have been manageable - did blow up."


Beard: First, I'm resigning because my job is done. When I came here two years ago, I came to change the organization, to make it more environmentally sensitive and to put less emphasis on construction.


My main strength was that I came in and made decisions. Reclamation had been under leaders who didn't want to make decisions. (As a result) many employees still dreamt about the past. A lot of people were waiting for the good old days of big dam building to come back. It was a New Deal, 1930s bureaucracy in the E-mail age.


I started by reducing the size, from 7,965 employees down to 6,474. One of out of five workers has left since I came. The budget has gone down $100 million, from $911 million to $804 million. I eliminated two layers of management.


But size and budget aren't everything. Every organization has a culture. I've enjoyed trying to change Reclamation's culture. Reclamation's strength is that it's filled with people who like to do things rather than talk policy. Go to Glen Canyon Dam, or Grand Coulee, or Hoover: It takes an incredible mind to think of such solutions and then implement them. I tried to maintain that commitment to solve problems, but to solve today's problems.


It needed new ideas. It hadn't had a lot of employee turnover. And past leadership had failed them. The climate in the West toward water started to change in the mid-1980s. But Reclamation didn't change. Units in Denver hadn't had a new employee in 15 years. One-third of Reclamation was over 50 years old.


Now Reclamation has been given a new mission as a water-resource manager, helping the West solve contemporary water problems. We've reduced an eight-foot-high stack of regulations into six inches of guidelines. Customer service has become the foundation for our operations. Reclamation has been made a more humane place to work.


Marston: Are there lessons here for other land and resource management agencies?


Beard: Government agencies ought to change over time. We're in an age when we want government to be efficient, unobtrusive, inexpensive and have less red tape. A lot of government agencies don't understand that people want quick, fair, open decisions. A lot of agencies love to lurch along in the same old ways. Yet American society is different in 1995 than in 1965. But the underpinnings to land management - laws like the Multiple Use, Sustained Yield Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund - are legislation out of the 1960s. Today, we're more urban, more highly educated. But a lot of government agency people don't want to change with the times. I consider myself a liberal Democrat. But that doesn't mean I support wasteful spending.


I think I've modernized Reclamation. I brought gut-wrenching change. Morale went down; now it's back up. But you can only jolt an organization so long. Then you need calm. You need someone to let those changes mature. But that's not my thing. I'm not a t-crosser and an i-dotter. Reclamation needs a different kind of leader now.


So I'm leaving. I've been in government for 22 years. It's time to move on. I either had to quit now, when there's still time for a new commissioner to take over in this administration, or I had to stay until January 1997.


I'm going to retire with a small annuity. I've always thought, "Boy, someday I'd like to do that." Well, maybe "someday" has come.


Maybe I'll go back to the Northwest and paint houses. Right now, that sounds good. © High Country News