Does the word that just popped into your head show up here? Find out:

22 July, 2010

On Site

Now and then, I take part in an "on site meeting," a rite of passage for projects occurring in the real world. Some apparatchik needs someone else's blessing, and either because she recognizes the sense of an agreement reached on the ground that will be affected, or maybe just needs a day out of the office, she sets up the meeting. 

I even call them from time to time, mostly because I'd rather tell the guy with the heavy machinery to his face what can happen if he rips into an archaeological site. How many levels of his supervisors show allows me to gauge the importance they place on this. As a rule, cultural resource compliance becomes more interesting as the weather improves, or when it happens on islands. 

But the serious on site meetings deal with more than just archaeology, and almost never include any of the people who will eventually be working on site. Agencies, regulators, landowners, tribes, and stakeholders gather at the behest of the proponent, whose job it is to convince them to say, "Yeah, go ahead."

The representatives at this meeting are sure to include a few supporters--only a fool calls a meeting like this without backup, or ringers, or whatever you want to call them. And of there is an opposition, and they are not represented, then woe be unto the project manager. But by and large there are people coming to find out what sort of headaches this project could cause them. They never want to make a commitment on the spot, even though the proponent always makes some effort, and even though they may mumble some vague (and deniable) words of support.

One I went to today, regarding a half mile of road to be built in the woods, was a good illustration of why government can be expensive. Attendees included:
For the landowner: a geologist, regulator, engineer and archaeologist; 
For the proponent: project manager, an assistant, archaeologist, region manager/engineer
For the funding agency: contracting officer, archaeologist, and someone else
For the closest tribe: cultural resource director and field tech
For a tribal consortium: 3 natural resource scientists

About a quarter of these people drove less than 50 miles to be there, and another quarter came from over 200 miles away. Everyone had a plausible reason to be there, although as usual the people who called the meeting could probably have mailed construction drawings and a sentence or two about what they wanted and skipped the actual meeting. Itain't cheap, but if you wanna protect fish and cultural resources, and avoid a catastrophic geological failure, and so on, you have to have the experts.  But despite the expense, it is more efficient than having a bunch of remote communication only to be surprised by the reality in the field. 

At least there were no contractors to deal with. Availing the project of private sector expertise and efficiency would have required at least one more contracting officer and a bevy of contractors wearing the most inappropriate footwear possible and complaining about the small-town lattes that made them late. To project an air of client service, they would surely have brought a boss who calls himself a 'principal,' who puts  his hands together (fingertip to fingertip, for full palm contact goes right past thoughtfulness to churchy in terms of hand signals, and principals are notorious atheists) and makes positive but irrelevant pronouncements.

As an archaeologist, I can usually render my professional judgment before the meeting is a third done, but of course I never do, not yet. In any case, if I wander around before introductions, or while the clot course and rests its way through the project area, the risks  are usually pretty obvious if they exist. 

As an anthropologist, I spend the rest of the time watching the people. Surreptitious eye rolls as HQ staff dons too much gear or stumbles through the easiest terrain, glazed eyes of the bored, intent eyes and whatever it is they are staring at. What are the friendships, partnerships, attractions and avoidances? The vapid loudmouth is easy enough to spot, but which of the quiet ones is just not interested, and which has some wisdom that won't come out in front of the whole group? 

I also enjoy the rituals. The transition from milling about to meeting, culminating almost always according to some ancient and unwritten rule: stand in a circle and introduce yourselves. The passing out of drawings and plans, which are never real and final, but are nevertheless handed out, tokens of appreciation for your attendance, something for you to hold onto, maybe mark up if you are so inclined (and to more than a few experts, visibly marking something out or writing is an important display). The various assertions of knowledge and status, from the beat-up skull-bucket to the probing inquiry. You can learn a lot watching these things happen.

The on site meeting can be a burden or an epiphany, a chore or a distraction. Whatever it is, it beats almost any conference room.

No comments:

Post a Comment