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Citizen Jane: Conspiracies theory and the ORA

August 10, 2011

Here are the steps for developing your very own conspiracy theory:
Step 1: Read a state or federal law (preferably a long one) on your own without consulting any background or supporting information. Having preconceived notions is optional, but will speed the process.
Step 2: Do not call any agency personnel, any groups who may be interested in the legislation or anyone who could provide you with clarification.
Step 3: Talk amongst your friends and other like-minded people to determine what the law says.
Step 4: Agitate.
While this recipe may be a bit humorous, unfortunately it is how some people approach understanding the laws created by our state and federal governments. This “recipe” creates a kind of paranoid induced inertia where people either feel the problem is too big and do nothing, or choose to do “something” that deviates from the legitimate approach. The “do something” oftentimes involves lots of activity: petitioning, leafleting and holding meetings where everyone can get fired up over something they don’t understand; it burns a lot of calories but is ultimately ineffective.
The interesting thing about freshly-made laws is their ability to be unspecific. A state RCW (Revised Code of Washington) or USC (United States Code) is deliberately vague because it is assumed the agency charged with interpreting the law will mash out, through the rule making process, how a law will be applied on a day to day basis. To include those details in the legislative process would ensure no law ever got passed (due to dickering over details) and it also lacks an important public input element. That’s why the rulemaking process, by law, must include opportunity for public input to make sure citizens agree with the rules. The rules in Washington are referred to as the Washington Administrative Code (WAC).
However, once those rules have been made it can be a challenge to understand how they apply to your business, your project or your property. Sometimes several agencies may have jurisdiction over your affairs and getting coherent answers from multiple agencies can be daunting. In recent years the legislature and the governor have recognized how frustrating it can be for citizens to navigate this maze and created the Office of Regulatory Assistance.
Now, you may be thinking (as I do) that it would make more sense to require agencies to work together than to create a whole separate office addressing their lack of ability to communicate with the public and each other. However, building bridges between agencies is a unfortunately a long-term project that does nothing to help the citizen wanting to start a business, build a deck on the lake or get a permit right now. To address those immediate needs, we have the Office of Regulatory Assistance (ORA).
Housed in the governor’s office, the ORA has 12 staff members and a $1.1 million a year budget to help citizens in two ways: through telephone and web assistance; and through regional leads in Spokane, Yakima, Lacey and Bellevue. The ORA works in three areas: environmental permitting, small business assistance, and regulatory improvement.
ORA Director Faith Lumsden said the ORA has answered questions about a range of business and personal activities.
“We have answered questions like ,’who do I contact to get my farm Certified Organic?’ or ‘how do the new physical therapist regulations work?’,” she explained. “We can also play a role when a business, like the Port of Quincy, needs permits from several agencies due to their waterfront location. We also had a call from a liquor distillery who wants to share premises with a brewery but needs to network with the Liquor Board since the law doesn’t currently address that situation.”
Lumsden said the ORA also receives a lot of calls regarding development or improvements on waterfront properties.
“In general, agencies respond well to citizens and businesses but there is oftentimes a need to go to a more neutral agency first to get information,” said Lumsden. “We have the benefit of being in the governor’s office which allows us to work with state agencies, often with a staff member who is within those agencies, so that is a position of influence.”
Lumsden said it is often easier for a citizen to have one contact person with the ORA instead of trying to network with several agencies on their own.
“Sometimes the agencies are frustrated because they don’t think their message is being heard, but it can also be an issue of people not communicating well,” said Lumsden.
There is no cost to citizens or businesses who contact ORA with their questions or concerns.
The ORA is also working on regulatory improvement by accepting citizen ideas on improving the regulatory process their website www.ora.wa.gov. They also have important information about the rulemaking process (mentioned above) and the rules state agencies must follow when interpreting the law.
The information on this site is invaluable to helping average people connect to the agencies and information they need to get projects done.
I appreciate the work this office is doing because while inter-agency communications and public service need to be upgraded in all levels of state government our ability to understand government processes, rules and permits can also stand a bit of improvement.
Our form of government responds when people get involved by educating themselves and telling legislators and regulators what works and what doesn’t. We have a tremendous amount of power as citizens and the first step to being effective is being well informed. Ask questions, do research, network with legitimate organizations: you may be surprised how influential you really are.

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