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DNR needs to improve customer service

February 3, 2008
Tom Carney
Have you ever tried to warm up to the Department of Natural Resources only to be left with the feeling that the most useful thing you can do is to throw up your hands and mutter, “Why bother?”

The Spring 2008 L.L. Bean fishing catalog, of all things, brought me to that point the other day.

L.L. Bean has begun offering caps, vests, bags and other items embroidered with the logo of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Each product also features one of Maine’s native species of fish or wildlife: trout, moose, puffin, bear, etc. A portion of the sale of each item will be donated to the MIF&W, the equivalent of Michigan’s DNR. And that got me to thinking.

Though the items are new to the Bean catalog, the MIF&W has been selling them for several years as part of its program to market itself as a brand name to its constituents. And the program seems to be working. On two trips to Maine a few years ago, all I heard from folks on the street were words of praise and support for the MIF&W. “Official” Wyoming Game and Fish Department apparel is advertised in magazines, and the department’s Web site actually features a gift shop where folks can show their support by purchasing “WDGD”-branded items.

The Michigan DNR Web site features no such shop and the department doesn’t offer logo items as the MIF&W does. And as much as anything that symbolizes the DNR’S apparent feeling that it doesn’t need to enlist the support of Michigan citizens in its efforts.

The DNR could use a friend these days. The problem is for the last couple of decades at least, when it’s had a chance to do things that might help bring the public to the point of embracing it, the DNR instead has frustrated citizens, leaving them feeling disenfranchised. It’s as if an institutionally perpetuated mindset has taken root, one that either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that for a governmental agency, “public relations” is simply “customer service.”

And as a result, the public, the customer that is, finds itself being treated like the enemy and responds accordingly.

For example, the DNR recently revealed it had “found” millions of dollars in surplus funds that will help it get through the next several months. Instead of celebrating the department’s good fortune, citizens have responded to that announcement with derision and mistrust.

A department concerned about developing a team mentality with the public would have done a much better job preparing us to understand and accept the need for the inevitable fee hikes for hunting and fishing licenses instead of waiting until a study group announced them and dealing, feebly, with all the backlash.

As I said, this attitude toward the Michigan public is no recent phenomenon; it goes back years and years. For example, since 1895 when deer licenses were first required, the fees for a Michigan resident license have increased 3,000 percent while the fees for nonresident licenses has increased less than 600 percent. Wouldn’t you think a Michigan department would take care of Michigan’s citizens first?

The way the DNR has handled the Rockport property is another case in point.

At a public meeting in September 2006, most members of the audience spoke against transferring Rockport from the Forestry Division to the Parks Division. At their meeting the next day DNR officials voted to put the brakes on the transfer.

I recall, however, telling someone about the body language of several DNR officials at that meeting when audience members spoke. You didn’t have to be a licensed psychologist to get this one.

When someone spoke against the transfer, people on stage crossed their legs, turned partially away from the speaker, and crossed their arms. When someone spoke in favor of the transfer, they opened up and leaned forward.

And now what do we have? Last week, the DNR’s “Negwegon State Park, Rockport, Thompson’s Harbor State Park” advisory committee voted to send along draft management plans for DNR approval. Among the recommendations: the administrative transfer of Rockport to the Parks and Recreation Division. Just like that. Done deal. The DNR had merely postponed what that body language indicated had already been decided, and in doing so ignored the best interests of the local people who utilize Rockport the most.

The late historian Barbara Tuchman coined the term “folly,” which she defined as “the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved.”

The policy must meet three criteria:

It “must have been seen as counter-productive in its own time.”

Second, “a feasible alternative course of action must have been available.”

Finally, “the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.”

Placed into the grand scheme of things, namely the DNR’s record for ignoring the public it is supposed to serve, a transfer of Rockport qualifies as folly on all counts.


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