Developing a National Ocean Policy: Lessons in the Art of Government

McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies | December 06, 2013
Developing a National Ocean Policy: Lessons in the Art of Government

Deerin Babb-Brott was working as the program director of UMass Boston’s Collaborative Institute for Oceans, Climate, and Security when he received a call from the Obama White House to join the nation’s best and brightest to develop a national ocean policy. As one of the architects implementing the Massachusetts ocean policy, he thought he was well-prepared for the task as director of the National Ocean Council.  When he arrived at the nation's capitol, however, he found many new challenges.

Speaking to an audience of graduate students, faculty and staff, Babb-Brott shared the story of a two-year process to develop a sound plan that took into account environmental protection, economic considerations, climate regulation, food management issues, as well as boating and sport fishing interests. This spirited, fast-talking advocate had to learn how to rationally and intelligently navigate "an extraordinarily cumbersome process" that takes place at the intersection of government, stakeholders, and special interest groups.

Before he arrived in Washington, a group of government officials, military leaders, academics, scientists, and policy planners had drafted a U.S. Ocean Policy implementation plan that included 9 priority recommendations, each containing 50 action steps and related milestones to address issues such as eco-system management, land use, and the response to climate change. 

"When the draft was put out for public comment," noted Brott, "a section of the world went crazy." The Obama administration received 55,000 comments, most of which found the plan "too prescriptive, too detailed."  Some even "called it communist."

Babb-Brott's job was to sift through the comments and work with the steering committee of the 27 member agencies of the National Ocean Council in order to "keep an eye on the prize" of developing a national ocean policy. To make matters even more difficult, the small experienced staff he worked with was changing, as was the party leadership in Congress.

Humorously using the TV show "West Wing" as an analogy of how things sometimes work in DC, Babb-Brott realized "there were only so many hours in a day and limited bandwidth to get things done" especially when party politics can occasionally bring things "to a screeching halt." 

His office needed to identify champions with whom to collaborate, to work smarter by integrating stakeholder concerns and examples into the new implementation plan, and to, above all, "trust your gut".  Although the final plan, recast into five major chapters, lacked the action orientation of the first draft, making it "uncomfortable for some of the scientific community," it follows "the spirit" of the initial plan and addresses the interests of the oil, gas, wind farm, and fishing industries as well as regional concerns.

When ask if the new plan will work, Babb-Brott replied, "Ocean policy is still a state-of-mind. Legislation would help enormously because the National Ocean Council has no legal authority.”

According to Robbin Peach, director of the Collaborative Institute for Oceans, Climate and Security, "Deerin shared some important leadership lessons with our faculty and graduate students.  Government partners need to work across silos, to compromise, and to work in synergy with stakeholders in order to best make things happen. These lessons pertain to ocean policy, health care, ... and, in fact, are applicable to most organizations and policy agendas."

The Collaborative Institute for Oceans, Climate and Security is a joint project of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies and the College of Science and Mathematics.

Tags: collaborative institute for oceans, climate, and security , csm , government , national ocean council , ocean policy , politics

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