Dear Government Agency,
I was taught to believe that your purpose for existence was to watch out for the public good. I thought that your mission was to serve selflessly, unbiased, unswayed by the concerns of private interest. You were supposed to be the policeman on the corner to protect us from the big bad bullies. Where were you when the coke plant next door belched toxic fumes into the air every 30 minutes and claimed to be law-abiding? Where were you when the paper company polluted our streams? Why didn’t you act when you knew the drinking water was polluted? I just don’t understand.
Disillusioned in Blacksburg
While this isn’t exactly my reaction, it is the sentiment I’ve heard echoing about our classroom and from others who have taken this class before, not to mention folks like the Bresslers or CACWNY. Regardless of our own prior opinions of the competencies of government agencies, we’ve all seen the blatant failures of the EPA, NYDEC, CDC etc. over the past few weeks.
The situation begs the question “Is there anything to be done?” In Thursday’s video conference, Erin Heaney asserted that the activist work CACWNY is doing is a civic duty. Since we can’t hope for government officials to do their jobs without oversight, we must police them as citizens. This may be a workable solution, but it is certainly not an ideal one.
My thoughts turned to the way that engineering duties are allocated on state highway projects in Ohio where I worked for seven years. On road projects, technicians must test construction materials and observe activities to assure compliance with specifications. These duties are roughly analogous to the enforcement of pollution control laws. In most cases, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) does not carry out these tasks in house. Rather the responsibility is subcontracted to private sector engineering firms. The engineering design of roads and bridges is often contracted out in the same way with the state providing oversight but most of the work being done by private firms. Organizations like ODOT still wield most of the power, but some of their “big stick” is transferred to these firms. The firms have all the incentives of private practice to do their jobs well and efficiently. Unlike their public sector counterparts, the engineers and technicians in these private firms can easily be fired if they underperform or fail to do at their work.
I’m sure there would be plenty of sticky details applying this sort of model to environmental regulation. Maybe it is done this way in some locales. Still, privatization of enforcement seems like it might be a practical way to get the work done. It also would allow the work to be performed by local firms with more familiarity with a region’s political, economic, and social climate than regulators from a state or federal agency. Perhaps it might boil down to convincing the government to share the power – not necessarily an easy task.