As an exercise for our Graduate Engineering Ethics class, we recently conducted a mock press conference related to the Washington DC Lead Water Poising Disaster where each student played a role as a member from the major agencies involved. I was assigned the EPA, and for several days leading into the Mock Press Conference, I was struggling to decide how I wanted to approach the conference. On the one hand, I personally felt obligated to be as transparent as possible, but I somewhat felt that this would go against what I thought the EPA would actually do.
For a few days I went back and forth between what I thought I would personally do (tell as much of the truth as I could, knowing what I would have known at the time) and what I thought the EPA’s action would be (withhold information and deflect blame onto other agencies). During this internal debate, I was somewhat surprised by how strongly I felt that I knew the EPA would not be entirely honest in their account of the events. This could potentially be contributed to hindsight, knowing that the EPA did not handle this event particularly well, or maybe it is just human nature to deflect blame instead of take accountability. Regardless, I decided to be as true to myself as possible by being transparent and forthright with my statements and explanation of the events. I also wanted to see what would happen if an agency admitted outright that they made mistakes and were trying to rectify them as quickly as possible. After deciding on my course of action, reviewing the materials given to me, and formulating my talking points, I went into the press conference feeling relatively at ease. Granted it wasn’t my actual career on the line, but even if it was I didn’t see the benefits of deceit.
My opening remarks admitted wrong doing and poor oversight, acknowledged pain and suffering, but reiterated that the EPA was fundamentally created to serve the public and that ‘we’ would do our best to better realize this goal through our actions. After these remarks, I felt that the panelists interviewing us (interrogating might be a better word) were visibly accepting of my apology and surprised; they seemed to turn their probing questions (which I image would have been directed toward me), and scorn toward the agencies who were less honest with the presentation of their actions.
By admitting that I was (at least in some part) to blame, I seemed to provide vindication to the interviewers while those who lied were ‘attacked’ as if their lies were personal attacks on those asking the questions. This back and forth forced those who lied to stick to their guns, so to speak, perpetuating the lie-probing question-lie interaction that seemed to develop. Down the road, having these statements on record would force future discourse into similar molds.
This then raises the question, why, when given the opportunity, do agencies feel the need to attempt to deceive the public? The only reasonable explanation I can see is that individuals do not want to personally sacrifice their job or that the organization does not want to be tied to their mistakes. Though I understand the need for self-preservation, this necessity, in my opinion, should not transcend an engineer’s requirement to safely provide services to the public.
Organizationally, I fail to see how admitting mistakes is a better look than perpetuating dishonestly until they are publically found out. Instead of the handful of errors they originally committed, you are left with numerous instances where the organization is irrefutably wrong.
Agencies actively withholding information forces experts to aggressively push issues and fervently call out the agency’s wrong doings in public forums. I imagine, to the layman, this looks as if there are significant disagreements between the experts and the agencies that represent them, and likely leads to public distrust. Personally, when public opinion can sometimes be finicky, I would hate to see a national loss of respect for an important agency (such as the EPA) through the deliberate actions of our own field. However, if agencies are not willing to police themselves, and admit when they inevitably make a mistake, then there is no alternative but for experts to provide aggressive oversight regardless of the overarching ramifications on public opinion.
It is my opinion that due to the impact these agencies have, they will inevitably falter and proverbially get blood on their hands; however, I think it is better to clean your hands, then bathe in it.