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How to deal with the bureaucracy

Today determines what your equine community looks
like tomorrow. Here are some hints to `get things done'

By LYNN BROWN / for the Horsetrader - September 2nd, 2010 - Cover Story, Feature Article

As a former ranch kid and a dedicated trail rider with 7,000 logged trail hours, I now ride in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. It is the largest City park in the world, with nearly 60 miles of horse trail.

It is a prized and unique feature of a huge city like L.A. to have this Park adjacent to centralized horse-keeping facilities. The Griffith Park system is overloaded and under budgeted, like most parks in the U.S. They deal with a wide variety of demands in the public’s usage of the park areas. The horse riders, a minority, have their own agenda to fulfill.

If it is a danger or nuisance to you, it will be for other riders also.
When I first started riding in Griffith Park, I noticed many things about the trails that affected me personally. For example, I rode a tall horse, and the horse tunnels that riders had to pass through to get to the trails were so full of sand that my hat brushed the top of the tunnel. My horse was a colt, and I could easily imagine him leaving the ground spooking, and whacking my head on the top of the concrete tunnel. It was in my best interest, as well as other people’s, to get it fixed.

Lynn Brown

Another example was the rocky back stretch of the Equestrian Center trail. It was one of the few long flat places that riders had for cantering their horses. I cantered the same back stretch, until my horse tripped over a large rock buried underneath the sandy surface, resulting in a spectacular and painful fall.

While hobbling around on crutches after the fall, I decided to do something about it. My first call was to the central number for Griffith Park, explaining what had happened to me. At this point, I was shuffled around by phone until I was directed to the Supervisor of Park Maintenance.

Patience and good cheer is needed to work through bureaucratic agencies. You will be transferred from office to office as most people don’t know what to do with you. All they will know is that it isn’t their office that should address your complaint. Expect to make anywhere from six to ten calls before getting to the right department.

If you are persistent in your requests–“Well, if this isn’t the right office, can you please help me find the correct one?”–you will slowly wind up with the employee who oversees the area you wish to address. Don’t get discouraged. Eventually you will make your way through the maze to the appropriate person.

Once you have reached the right department, and the right person, introduce yourself as representing your organization as Trail Coordinator, or whatever title you choose.
Even if you only represent 10 people, it’s better if you call as a point man for an organization than as a private citizen. A larger voice gets their attention. Frankly, they will be surprised and impressed that you found them. They know that ferreting them out is not easy. Having gone to all the trouble, they are almost obliged to help you. Always try to reach the Supervisor of each department. Underlings lack the authority to make decisions or issue directives. Once you have a name and phone number, you’ve officially made your first contact.

You will accomplish nothing by being belligerent, self-important or threatening. You want the person to do the job for you, not dig in their heels and resist with all their might. Threatening to sue will get you zip in general cooperation. In the case of the horse falling over the rock, the first thing I said was that I was not a person who would sue, but that I wanted to see the matter taken care of so that others wouldn’t be hurt as I was. By this, (1) removed myself as a threat, (2) let them know that I was well aware of the possibilities of a suit and (3) gave them a chance to save their behind from others possibly not as nice as me.

I called the Maintenance Supervisor so many times about resurfacing the back stretch that he knew me by the sound of my voice. I called frequently but was very friendly and pleasant, always saying that I was “just checking in to see what progress was being made.” At one point, I offered to “help” him in his job by circulating a petition regarding the matter, thereby backing myself up as representing a group, not some lone nut voicing a complaint. He quickly assured me that such “help” wasn’t necessary and they would get to it. I never gave him any chance to get angry with me, but let him know by my cheerful persistence that I wasn’t going to go away. Often, they will do the job just to keep you from calling every day.

Again, it is important that you don’t irritate them — or threaten. You don’t want them to dismiss you as an aberrant wacko. Once you are labeled as a wacko, you’ll never be able to get anything done. Your phone calls and requests will be on the back burner, or tossed in the “round file” entirely. Be pleasant, but stick to them like glue. A sense of humor helps a lot.

In the case of offering to start a petition, which sometimes can be a real help to a department, don’t offer what you are not prepared to deliver. Petitions are hard work, requiring much persuasion and political action on your part to obtain and present signatures. It is a real challenge to galvanize the public to take action, especially if it means they actually have to do something like write a letter. Letters are the most effective tool, but they very difficult to produce in terms of motivating the public to write them. To accomplish a smaller task, like replacing or installing a horse trough, or major trail repairs, a petition is an effective tool. However, for larger political issues, a petition is useless. Bureaucrats know that it is too easy to sign a petition, so it has less clout. Personal letters are very effective as one letter, whether on a good letterhead, or hand written in crayon, counts as probably representing 100 people. Government agencies pay attention to letters. You can hand out “talking points” to the public, along with addresses of whom to write, but a prewritten letter/email petition, even if it has a personal signature and is mailed in a separate envelope, is considered a “petition” and ends up in the round file. I learned this the hard way.

Don’t call in with a whole laundry list of projects for them to do.
Don’t waste their time with trivial items; go for the big stuff. Do it one job at a time. Once the project is done, lay off for awhile before making the next request. Prioritize your needs.

Be sure to write them up frequently in your organization’s newsletter or magazine.
See if you can get a piece in your local newspaper. Cut out a copy and send it to them.

Send a letter of praise from your organization to their boss regarding his wonderful employee. (Be sure to ask the person if they would like you to do that; sometimes this action is not appropriate. You want to help, not make trouble).

One hand washes the other. Good feelings all around help you get the next job done. At Christmas, our local ETI organization personally delivers thoughtful small gifts to the person and his staff, such as fruit baskets, or tubs of popcorn. Nothing should be too extravagant; it could be misconstrued as a bribe. People like to be recognized and thanked, especially those who work in big bureaucratic offices. A thank you card with multiple signatures is greatly appreciated, often displayed on their bulletin board in their office.

When I first started making requests to the Park regarding maintenance matters, one supervisor said, “Gee, we haven’t heard from the horse people in years. We didn’t know what you wanted. You mean people ride horses on that trail? I didn’t know anyone used that particular section.” I assured him that many riders used it daily. “Imagine that!” he said, “We used to have an old guy who called us regularly with things to fix, but we haven’t heard from him in years. Maybe he died.” The squeaky wheel — gets the job done!

At first, I’d call, and in a day or two someone on the park staff would show up with a grader and drag the sand out of the tunnels. After a while, they’d fill up, and I’d call again. Eventually, every Monday morning after the busy weekend, the grader automatically drags the tunnels. It became part of their routine.
Getting the back stretch done was more difficult. Special equipment had to be found and brought to the site. Ultimately, Recreation and Parks brought in multiple dump truck loads of decomposed granite and made a good surface. Eventually, hundreds of riders would safely canter it without thinking about rocks. It took a lot of friendly persuasion on my part, and it was finally accomplished.

In the process, I had developed valuable resources on the park staff, which I was careful not to overuse. Riders offer suggestions to me about something they might want to see done. I don’t hand out these phone numbers to others, but report it myself. I protect my hard won resource people.
If it is a project your local organization can do for itself, I’ll call and suggest that we are willing to fix a horse water trough, etc., if it’s O.K. with them. Sometimes they are grateful for the help; sometimes they’d rather do it themselves.

As a service to the park, I report damage to the trails as necessary, and have tried to find ways of being helpful by reporting troublemakers, and dangerous hazards. I make sure the organization gets credit for the action, and the Park appreciates the support.

Through this process, I have learned a lot about the nature of accomplishing projects. I have fought battles with City Hall with the help of my resources. If a matter is not within their jurisdiction, they often can save me a lot of time by telling me who to call, and supplying me with the correct phone number.
In many cases, while you are wandering the bureaucratic maze, they will tell you exactly what steps you need to take to be successful. I have received invaluable help and support from these people, often because I might be taking on a battle that they would like to see fought and can’t do themselves. It has been fascinating and rewarding. Some of these relationships with park personnel have lasted pleasantly for years.

With the aid of references from my sources, I have gotten trails opened, placed numerous horse watering stations throughout the Park, gotten tie rails and picnic spaces built for hikers and equestrians, and generally maintained trails in good condition.

I have worked with Cal Trans to repair dangerous breaks in chain-link fences alongside freeways, and with the Department of Water and Power on reopening a trail closure. The process is the exactly the same with each bureaucracy. Win some, lose some.

Most people are friendly and good about returning phone calls (or I just keep calling them), and usually cooperative about taking care of the matters at hand. This doesn’t not occur overnight, of course. After years of cultivating these relationships, I can pick up the phone and usually get a job done.
It is gratifying to know that the efforts of a few — or even one person –can make a big difference. You can impact the quality of life, for yourself and for others.

Lynn Brown is the National Trail Coordinator for Equestrian Trails International (ETI), and serves as the Vice Presidient for the Equine Advisory Committe (EAC), which is an official body created by the L.A. City Council.

One comment has been made on “How to deal with the bureaucracy”

  1. Sally Cobb Says:

    This is a fantastic article. Thanks so much for printing it in this month’s Horsetrader. I feel a lot like Lynn. I have been requesting that the Board of Supervisors appoint an Equine Advisory Committee for San Diego County for a year now, and I think they are listening. It is an exciting time for San Diego County equestrians. The DPLU has done a 180 degree turn around in the past 6 months, regarding equine zoning laws, and they are finally working on a reasonable ordinance for boarding facilities. The DPLU especially wants equestrian citizens to get involved in their local Sponsor Groups, through which they can have a big voice to the County. The BOS and DPLU listen to the Sponsor groups, and this is where our equestrian interests should be presented. There is red tape with the Sponsor Groups, but on the other hand the County listens more to the Sponsor groups than to individuals. The horse community can no longer assume their interests will be taken care of when they are silent. It is time for all equestrians to get involved with their Sponsor Group. The DPLU has requested that each horse property owner/manager/operator complete an ANONYMOUS Survey so that they can obtain the information they need to proceed with the new “tiered” equestrian ordinance. The DPLU is also in the process of scheduling an October meeting for the public. Date and Time of this meeting will be announced at http://www.equinezoning.com, where equestrians will also find the Survey.

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