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Is the Tail Wagging the Dog?

2008 July 25

About the author: Larry Teller joined EPA’s Philadelphia office in its early months and has worked in environmental assessment, state and congressional liaison, enforcement, and communications.

My favorite anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania years ago, David B. Stout (famously, in his playful words, “not a Leakey lover,” but that’s another story), insisted that scientists are culture bound by their own culture—unable to fluently interact with, or even fully understand, other cultures. This teaching came to mind yesterday during a meeting in EPA’s mid-Atlantic regional office to begin defining a new website about “green infrastructure;” make that “natural infrastructure;” no, perhaps it’s “limited impact development?” or was it “green communities,” or “green buildings.”

My sincere motto at such meetings, of course, is “I’m from the public affairs office and I’m here to help.” Indeed, as the regional web content coordinator, my job is to help make our websites useful, targeted communications tools that follow EPA’s web standards and best practices. One of these best practices is content coordination, to minimize repetition, confusion and gaps among related agency web content.

I tried not to show how much the conversation made my head hurt, among a group of earnest, cooperative colleagues who are eager to help developers, planners, elected officials, public works managers, environmentalists and the public guide sustainable development. With such a diverse audience, and so many EPA programs individually focused on different slices of the green development pie, it unfortunately wasn’t my first experience where web communications considerations (the tail) forced us to confront the overlap or gaps between policies and programs (the dog).  Shouldn’t it work the other way? Wouldn’t it better serve EPA, our stakeholders and the environment if related programs were more clearly defined, or combined before turning our attention to public outreach? (These questions aren’t rhetorical; please answer them.)

Our group yesterday didn’t know enough about policy integration our agency may be doing to bring the principles and virtues of these green initiatives together to better serve the many concerned external people. As a result–and this is more intriguing challenge than complaint—we’re seeking some manner of content integration as we conceive and write a new website.

Professor Stout wouldn’t be surprised by what we face, but may I ask, dear reader, do you, too, see what we face as the tail wagging the dog?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. Marcus permalink
    July 27, 2008

    I had a former boss who would occasionally stop such discussions and declare, “We are now discussing what the color of the Yearbook should be. That’s important, but we could spend the rest of the day arguing about this. We’re going to take three more minutes to get everyone’s recommendation and then I’m going to make a decision and then we are going to stop talking about it and move on.” Seemed to be a good way to get more dog, less tail.

  2. Noha permalink
    July 28, 2008

    Your post covers so many different issues!!!
    – Scientists’ communication skills;
    – Spending too much time at meetings discussing trivial things;
    – Stove-piped organizations that don’t communicate their activities let alone collaborate to achieve mutual goals;
    – Policy integration?

    It seems to me that the main point of your post is that before we start developing a website that pools together information about what various offices and programs are doing on a specific environmental issue, we should be thinking about how we in fact integrate these activities to achieve increased program efficiencies and positive environmental results. Or if that thinking is actually taking place, it needs to be communicated widely across the Agency, so you don’t get a group of scientists sitting in a room wondering how to structure web content without any sense of direction. IMHO, this points to the need for stronger science-based program planning and integration AND involving all employees in the process or at least effectively communicating it to them.
    And with all due respect to Prof. Stout, there are scientists out there who have very strong communication skills. It’s not a forgone conclusion that scientist=lack of communication skills! But we definitely can do a better job of developing and honing the communication skills of all EPA scientists. So far the paradigm has been, you scientists do the work and the public affairs folks will take care of the communication. As you can see, that approach isn’t working!

  3. Jon permalink
    July 29, 2008

    My favorite anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania years ago, David B. Stout… insisted that scientists are culture bound by their own culture—unable to fluently interact with, or even fully understand, other cultures.

    I heard when Ben Franklin went to France, none of the ladies would dance with him, so befuddled was he. They would say, “Now Ben, I would like you to dance with me, but you can’t even fluently interact with, or even fully understand my culture!!”

    At that point, he thoroughly regretted ever publishing his findings on lightning to the Royal Academy. And he promptly burned his copy of Newton’s Optics in his Franklin Stove.

  4. July 31, 2008

    I always understood that old Ben was rather well liked by the ladies of Paris, which I find odd since at the time he was a 70 year-old in a coonskin cap.

    I never had the pleasure of taking any Anthropology classes while at Penn (I was stuck in the bowels of the Towne Building) but your point resonates with me since I have scientists of so many varied disciplines working for me. And thanks for the image of a green pie…yuck.

  5. Ido J permalink
    January 3, 2011

    Oh, this is so true.
    When I moderate a meeting (should say manage a meeting) I declare the exact time allocated to this meeting – the EXACT time.. we finish the meeting on time. this forces the participants to be sharp and to the point.

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