In the years following his frequently tumultuous tenure as head of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), Idahoan Peter T. Johnson looked back on those years; years of crisis in the Pacific Northwest dominated by an overbuilt and astoundingly expensive nuclear power program, as a great life experience. Johnson would say he learned a lot.
In January of 1993, as was his style and long after his BPA tenure had ended, Johnson committed some of the lessons to paper in an article published in the Harvard Business Review. His think piece – “How I Turned a Critical Public Into Useful Consultants” – should be required reading for any business or government executive who needs to channel public anger, confusion and misinformation in the direction of constructive change.
Johnson noted in his HBR piece that when he ran Trus Joist, the wood products company that was founded in Boise, he had little time for the consuming and often not very pleasant task of engaging critics. “I had enough on my plate without environmentalists, politicians, special interests, or the general public second-guessing my decisions and interfering with my operations,” he wrote. But at BPA, where he became administrator in 1981, Johnson had little choice but to engage the region’s often unruly stakeholders who included public and private power interests, environmentalists, labor unions, fish advocates, river operators, and tribal governments, just to name a few,
“Outsiders had a way of exerting influence whether I liked it or not,” Johnson wrote. “I had no sooner arrived at BPA when the agency became the target of political, legal, and even physical threats from people outside the organization who had lost confidence in BPA’s ability to act without jeopardizing their interests. Those of us on the inside knew we were capable of making good decisions, and we made every effort to explain our reasoning.
“But that was the problem. By first making decisions and then explaining them, we were essentially telling people that we knew what was good for them. Meanwhile, the people affected by our decisions were telling us in any way they could—lobbying to curtail BPA’s authority, taking BPA to court, or aiming rifles at BPA surveyors—that the father-knows-best approach to decision making was completely unacceptable.”
The businessman became a listener and his “come let us reason together” approach allowed him to move ahead with the enormously controversial decision to shutdown much of the appropriately dubbed “Whoops” nuclear project – the Washington Public Power Supply System. Johnson did not fully appreciate the mess he inherited when Ronald Reagan, at the behest of Idaho Sen. Jim McClure, tapped him to run the sprawling federal power marketing agency that has been a fixture in the region since Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House.
A Johnson predecessor at BPA, a right-wing ideologue named Don Hodel, had championed the nuclear building program in the 1970’s. Convinced that the region was running short of power, Hodel lobbied utilities to “build, build, build,” while at the same time, as the Seattle Times reported in 1997, belittling environmentalists as “prophets of shortage” bent on “stopping all development in this country.” Ironically Hodel’s “vision” – a nuclear powered Northwest – eventually lead to the bankruptcy of much of the Whoops project, still one of the largest public bond defaults in American history. In classic Peter Principle fashion, Hodel “failed upward” and won a promotion to be Reagan’s Secretary of Energy and later Interior. Peter Johnson was left to clean up the mess.
Peter Johnson died a few days ago at age 82. The Dartmouth educated business guy had retired to McCall, Idaho where he kept close tabs on the often dysfunctional local politics and served as a leading advocate for protecting the water quality in Payette Lake, one of Idaho’s great natural wonders.
In reflecting on his career, I think Johnson must have been the kind of person FDR envisioned running the big, important regional agency dealing with energy; a subject of fundamental importance to the economy and the environment. Johnson was a Republican, but never a partisan. He was a man of his word and, as his HBR article suggests, a successful man of the private sector who displayed enough agility and intelligence that he could learn how to operate successfully in the public sector.
With the current management of BPA mired in scandal and beset by shifting leadership it would be easy to forget that the agency once faced even bigger problems and went on to survive as a vital resource in the Pacific Northwest. Peter Johnson was a major part of that survival.
I had the good fortune to know Peter Johnson a little. On more than one occasion he patiently schooled me on Valley County politics and I once had a cameo role in helping implement his ideas about how to focus public and government attention on water quality issues as a key factor in the future of the central Idaho region he loved.
We can thank the late Jim McClure and his brilliant chief of staff Jim Goller for identifying Peter Johnson as their candidate to run BPA in the early 1980’s. It was truly a case of the right guy in the right job at the right moment in history. He’ll be missed.
[Photo credit – BPA]