Jacobs: In public policy, process is not progress

GRAND FORKS--A survey of pending public policy issues raises a disturbing question: Why is it so hard to reach a decision? The most notorious case in point is the University of North Dakota nickname and logo. This took two decades. A second invol...

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GRAND FORKS-A survey of pending public policy issues raises a disturbing question: Why is it so hard to reach a decision?

The most notorious case in point is the University of North Dakota nickname and logo. This took two decades.

A second involving higher education is tenure of college presidents, at North Dakota State University in particular.

A third is the Dakota Access Pipeline, approved but facing court challenges and increasingly raucous protests that sometimes involve illegal activity, according to law enforcement authorities.

Still another is a hog farm near Buffalo, N.D., that won approval from the state. That's headed for court.


These have drawn statewide attention.

The problem isn't unique to state government by any means. Here's a local example, from Grand Forks, which is the city I know best. It involves the public library - whether to build a new one and where to put it. There also the question of how to pay for it, but this depends on the answer to the first two questions, whether and where.

Just a little background:

Grand Forks' present library was built in 1970 near the southern edge of the city. Grand Forks has grown southward in the 46 years since the library was completed. It's in a neighborhood that's become known as "midtown," for reasons that will be clarified in a few paragraphs or so. That library replaced one downtown. The old location is now a parking ramp.

Today's discussion about a library is a rerun of an earlier one, played out four years ago when voters rejected a new library. The argument was very similar to today's discussion: Where should the library be?

The issue went to voters without a site - except that the Library Board had conducted a poll that indicated strong support for a specific location. That proved not to be possible on political grounds. The city itself wasn't willing to pay for associated infrastructure costs, and the Park District wasn't keen on giving up property that might be needed. The result was a failed vote and a new argument.

This time the Library Board has announced in favor of a downtown site. Support for another site has emerged, however, at a spot in "midtown" - a phrase that has come into general use by supporters of a library somewhere near the existing building. A survey conducted by a council member and published Sunday favored the midtown location. Supporters of the downtown location dismissed the survey as unreliable.

The City Council, parent of the Library Board, has postponed the whole issue by leaving the library question off the November ballot. Council members were afraid the issue might jeopardize a sales tax increase they're seeking to pay for infrastructure, including a new water treatment plant, street repairs and the city's share of an interchange on Interstate 29.


The issue is divisive. Interested parties have taken evasive action.

The library issue is turning into the nickname and logo all over again - an ongoing argument with no resolution.

The same is true of public policy issues pending at the state level.

Former President Joseph Chapman left NDSU with a settlement in his pocket. The board recently put his successor, Dean Bresciani, on notice, but when he lied and threw his athletic director under a bus, the board wasn't able to muster votes to remove him. Instead, the board hired a Kansas attorney to look into the matter. Presidents at UND, Williston State, Dickinson State and the state College of Science have been either booted or driven away, always through a drawn-out process.

As for the Dakota Access Pipeline, the state Public Service Commission and several federal agencies approved the route without hearing from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The pipeline would cross the Missouri River less than a mile from the tribe's territory, so the Sioux have an interest in it. Whether or not the tribe was asked its opinion is a matter of dispute. The upshot has been a month-long protest that grows more volatile daily.

The hog farm at Buffalo, like the library issue in Grand Forks, owes something to semantics. It's called Rolling Green Family Farm, a name with a friendly sound. The farm will have 9,000 hogs. Manure will be trucked away. Buffalo citizens have gone to court alleging that the State Health Department was too cozy with Rolling Green and ignored their own arguments. They've say they've found incriminating documents.

These are five examples of decision making gone awry. The unifying theme is an emphasis on process. In all of these instances the process has failed, at least to some degree, and in a couple of the cases, spectacularly.

There's a lesson here about public policy.


Process is not progress, especially when the process is broken. Instead, a broken process undermines progress because it erodes public confidence in decisions.

Process needs attention because what we're getting is not decision but dissension, disillusion and disgust.

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