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Part 2 - internship series (Columbia River Gorge Commission)

This is the second part of my series on my summer internship at the Columbia River Gorge Commission. To recap the last part, I leveraged the CiC, faculty, and a former student to find an internship through a program at Portland State University's Hatfield School of Government. I found myself in the middle of the Cascade Mountain Range at the Columbia River Gorge Commission (CRGC) in White Salmon, Washington.

In my initial discussions with the CRGC director I was oriented to a project the Commission had been trying (and failing) to launch for almost 15 years. After some management and personnel changes (and a budget increase thanks to global warming), the CRGC was prepared to give the project one more shot. The issue was this: what happens when Congress forms a new bi-state land use planning commission, details fuzzy logic in its legislation, and then requires no accountability for 20 years of policy-making? You guessed it, a lot of unproven, undocumented, and uneven policy. So, with the environment obviously changing in the Western US, people began to take notice and started asking this commission what their policies were actually doing to help. You could hear the crickets - the silence was unbearable. Someone needed to begin an assessment program of CRGC policies to ensure they were working the way in which was intended. That's when I was brought in.

The group had a pretty good idea of what they wanted to do, the just weren't sure on how to go about doing it. I wasn't given the full lot of details over the phone, but the work sounded interesting, and it appeared that the project had started a few months before. I was all geared up to start working with the project team (led by a high-profile consultant) and hopefully provide some help to them over the course of the summer. When I arrived, however, I quickly learned that I was the project team… and nobody had touched the project in 3 months. The big "uh oh" went through my mind right away. The lead consultant was in Australia finishing another project and wouldn't make it to Washington for 3 more weeks. The only person on staff who had been working on the project was completely bogged down with other work duties and hadn't been able to focus any time in my direction. Here I thought I was going to work day-to-day under a mentor and learn a handful of useful skills - but instead I found myself swimming in some deep waters, a bit alone.

But, I'm not an SI crusader for nothing. I quickly amassed all the information I could on program evaluation, the policies themselves, the culture of the commission, and the demeanor of the community. I began making plans and started writing up a survey to test the community values. I was able to squeeze some precious time out of my other teammate and pull together a proposal for the next 18 months. People were a-buzz, and then the consultant returned.

I made two mistakes those first few weeks: 1) I assumed people would just "get" SI methods; 2) I thought too hard about starting fresh and not hard enough about using the existing tools and information available. The consultant quickly pointed out to me that unless there was a name attached to the methods of rapid contextual design and that any results would be statistically significant, it wasn't worth the costs. While eventually I was able to shift perspectives, it was an important lesson: present new methods to unsuspecting associates cautiously and in a way that makes sense to them. And compromise. So I had to let go of the survey, but I could keep my working advisory groups and the majority of my work plan.

These lessons were initial setbacks, but with some perseverance, compromise, and humility, I was able to keep the project heading in the right direction and learn a few things along the way.

In Part 3 of this series I'll go over a few skills I learned and what I feel I missed. I'll also talk about how this prepares me for future decisions about work in related fields.

Posted by pkleymee at October 29, 2007 10:38 PM

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