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ODF not ODF, Inc.
[Published under the title "Ill-fitting Suit", Op. Ed., The Daily Astorian, Sept. 26, 2003]
I read with amusement resource policy director James E. Brown's proposal, as reported in the Daily Astorian, that the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) management should view itself "as a business with the public's interest in mind" ("Former state forester addresses national forester meeting," 9-16-2003). While this is a facile and alluring argument to make it fails several key tests of legitimacy. It is attractive because it seeks to replace the stodgy bureaucratic stereotypic image of government with the smooth veneer of corporate efficiency. Who doesn't want a public agency doing the public good while not squandering a single cent of the public's money?
Setting aside the modern examples of corporate malfeasance that make this analogy if not flawed then suspect (Enron, Worldcom, Global Crossing, Adelphia, Arthur Anderson, etc.), let's turn to the real fly in the ointment. Corporations are legal entities that are designed to return dollar profits to shareholders by competing in free and fair competitive markets. Where is the competition to ODF? In what free and open market does ODF consider itself competing? Indeed, the Northwest Oregon State Forests Management Plan (ODF 2001) echoes the mandate to achieve "the greatest permanent value to the citizens of Oregon."
This then is the second problem with the ODF, Inc. analogy. Value is not synonymous with profit. Corporations are designed and measured on potential and actual dollar returns. If it cannot be put into dollar figures then corporations have a hard time performing. (Witness the massive markdowns in "corporate goodwill" in the past 3 years.) What is the value of a vista, a 500 year-old tree, fresh water, clean air? And not just this quarter or this year but, "across the landscape and over time?" What corporate plan, with seriousness, looks into the future 500 years?
To be sure, government agencies can learn some things from corporations, and the reverse is equally true, but fundamentally we must recognize that government agencies perform a different role than corporations. Where markets don't exist, where competition is not present, where the outcome sought is not easily monetized, when the public good is paramount, then corporations are not the best construct. Let's make ODF the best forestry agency in the world by comparing it to the best government and non-governmental organizations, and not by trying to dress it in the ill-fitting suit of a corporate charter.