Disillusioned in Blacksburg?

Cartoon from Union of Concerned Scientists (www.ucsusa.org)

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.

2 thoughts on “Disillusioned in Blacksburg?

  1. This is really interesting, Dan. It is the first attempt to answer the question, how do we get the regulation we need without the public having to drag the agencies along to enforce it? that I can actually identify with and possibly see working…

    There are two things that come to mind when I read your response, however, that I think may be troublesome. First, my brother works for K-DOT. He does road design alongside a slurry of private consultants just like what you described above. KS-state is a little short on cash, as are most state DOTs – especially with the economy the way it’s been – so not many people have gotten raises or bonuses since he has been there. In fact, Tom has been promoted twice in his three years there, given more responsibility with no more pay. He doesn’t mind too much because the official policy right now is no raises. However, when he reviews contracts from these private firms, it plain to see that they are building in the annual raises and end-of-year bonuses into their contracts with the government. So the Kansas tax payer (Tom) ends up paying for the private sectors pay raises. An identical engineer at a private consulting firm in Kansas City, MO (being paid by Kansas government) makes about 1.3X what Tom makes. I think everyone knows that the private sector is making more money than the government, but it is doing so at the expense of the government directly. Seems weird to me to outsource work government employees are capable of doing — sacrificing time for extra $$ (there’s got to be some balance between the two — but God knows the government ‘aint efficient enough to maximize it and who knows if it would be done right if they did).

    So what follows and the second point that I wanted to raise is, if the private sector is doing this kind of behind-the-scenes-but-not-so-secret price raising, what’s the incentive in the regulatory business? I see the benefits from a private sector outsource model where something’s being built – the public can see where their money is going (and even then sometimes, they don’t want to spend it…when I was a land surveyor in rural MO for a summer there were multiple times I was approached by angry citizens telling me that by me being out there (again, being paid by the state to survey for a private firm) that I was costing them the milk money). The public will never see the extra money they spend on good regulation of industries.

    I guess I’m working from the standpoint that the government is paying the private firm regulators…that’s the only way it would work. If the Industry itself was hiring the regulators, it might end up something like what happened at TCC where they definitely measured high benzene and leaks and TCC did nothing about. I don’t see a structure where the industry pays the private sector to monitor and the private firms report to the EPA/DEC or whatever government regulatory agency needs to know working in America.

    I guess the last question I have is, would the EPA/governing agency be ready to actually do their jobs if the private firms report someone is not in compliance?

    Really thought provoking post. Thanks.

    • Thanks William. It seems to me that your comment should count for a blog-post in itself. You really put a lot of thought into it.

      To respond to your initial point about compensation, etc., my impression (read: not necessarily based on fact) is that government employees often make the trade of lower salaries for better and more long-lasting benefit packages. As far as how the state handles private sector contracts, there must be many different models. In Ohio, our contracts with ODOT were for the most part very transparent. Everyone’s actual pay rate was multiplied by a set multiplier to account for overhead, profits, etc. Raises would definitely show up in the billings, but it wouldn’t be behind-the-scenes. Surely, the state would have the right to question why a $50/hour person is doing something that could be done by the $20/hour staff. Believe me, the one thing that they were good at was making sure every bean was accounted for. In the end however, my understanding is that ODOT switched to a more outsourced system because it was cheaper for them (and probably resulted in better work).

      Maybe I’m misunderstanding your second point, but from the states perspective the incentive could be simply an economic one. It may be cheaper for them to significantly reduce their agency staff and pay the private sector to do the work instead. None of this would work out if the private work was a layer added on to the existing system. It would necessarily have to replace the current status quo.

      The third point is the real rub and is again an issue of power and its use or misuse. Can the Agency’s own paid experts get them to do the ethical thing? One would hope so but I’m afraid much political/systemic/philosophical change must occur for that to be the case. Maybe the need for grassroots activism doesn’t go away, it just shifts its focus to other concerns or aspects of the same problem.

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