Stepp changes culture to ‘yes’ at state agency

Cathy Stepp

Business people have a hard time believing their ears when Cathy Stepp speaks. Take a look at her regulatory reform message:

“We serve the public; the public doesn’t serve us, “ said the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “Time is money man. Businesses today need a quick response” on permits and rulings, she adds.

All these pro-business sentiments are coming from the head of an agency – known pejoratively as “ The DNR” — that has long been regarded as generally hostile to business.

Not so, it has become abundantly clear under Stepp, a former business woman, Republican State Senator and member of the DNR board. She knows the ropes in Madison and is determined to pull off a culture change in the agency so environmental enhancement and job creation can be carried out in a collaborative manner.

Her goal: to make “Our DNR” the number one agency for job creation. She’s blond, bubbly, irreverent and energetic. She just might pull it off. “Patience is not my thing,” she says.

Two policy thrusts show her determination. She created the Office of Business Support and Sustainability (OBSS) that will try to get to answers of “Yes” for citizens and businesses vs. “Nope.”

The second is an emphasis on The State’s Green Tier program under which businesses agree to ambitious environmental targets in return for less micro-regulation. The program moved slowly in previous administrations – only a few have signed Green Tier II contracts. But it’s moving faster under Stepp. Many are taking the first step with a Green Tier I agreement.

The new OBSS has hired nine industrial sector specialists so the agency can be more expert and responsive in its relations to business.

Stepp wants companies to come to the agency early so their plans can be shaped to meet environmental standards. She sees no reason why permits can’t be issued within the 18-month timeline it takes to get a new plant up and running. Issuing a permit should be viewed as a success for state government, she says, not a defeat as in the past.

The Stepp approach is music to the ears of those who work hard on economic development, not an easy task in the struggling economy.

The prevailing attitude in agencies in Wisconsin and many states has historically been more adversarial than collaborative, more attuned to prosecution on the back end of a regulatory process than guidance on the front end. “Businesses are not asking for the rules to be changed; they just want to know what the rules are,” she says.

One of Stepp’s predecessors at DNR, Scott Hassett, who served in the administration of Democrat Jim Doyle, also advocated collaboration over a prosecutorial philosophy on environmental issues. He made a dent, but his ideas didn’t fly very far. When he left the Doyle cabinet early, it was right back to tense relationships between the business world and “The DNR.”

No one foresees Stepp going anywhere. She loves her job and she wants to be a break-the-mold leader. Gov. Scott Walker has to love what she’s doing, and he’s in office for at least two more years.

Wisconsin has already moved from the bottom ten in the country in rankings for business climate to number 20. If Stepp succeeds with her mission of pragmatic collaboration, the state could shoot for number one.

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  • Old Baldy


    I agree that Ms Stepp is great for business, but for all the wrong reasons. She and her Walker-picked administration have alienated staff, been openly hostile to Dept employees and made public comments before and after her appointment about how she despises the Dept mission and responsibilities. For a good read, check out the reversal of the staff decision regarding enforcement on a waste hauler in southern WI. A great message to send to dedicated staff.

    She may be “blonde, bubbly, etc”, but she is also unprofessional, disingenuous, and vindictive.

    And don’t giver her credit for creating the industrial sector specialist position. Give that to George Meyer for his reorganization back in the mid to late ’90’s. That is when the sector specialists came into existence. And the forerunner to OBSS has been around for years with the same responsibilities.

    I normally agree with most of your articles, but this one is poorly researched, and gives credit to the wrong folks.

    And, no I am not a DNR employee. I am a consultant that has been working on these same issues for years. I work with DNR staff every day and never had a problem with working through an issue. The sense I get now is fear and insecurity from my contacts.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the dissenting view. My experience has been different than yours. But I take your point.

      • old baldy


        I’m sure “business” is now getting their way with Ms Stepp at the reins. It will be at a cost to the citizens of the state in the long run, but not many political leaders of either party think that way any more.

        But if you had any real contacts with the DNR program staff (other than Stepp and the top appointed administrators) you would know that they have been publicly disrespectful of staff, lied to employees,and cut deals behind their backs. A short perusal of news articles since her appointment would bear these out. That behavior is a real morale breaker for dedicated employees.

        And, please, give due credit for the sector specialists to George Meyer. Stepp doesn’t deserve any more than she has rightfully earned.