There is plenty of environmental despair right now . . . spreading oil in the Gulf, legislative inaction on climate change and a host of other issues, and the sense that for every step forward, there is a special interest that will take the nation two steps back.
So, in this downward spiral of disappointments, is there any ray of hope? Rena Steinzor and Sidney Shapiro hit upon one promising possibility in their important new book, The People's Agents and the Battle to Protect the American Public: Special Interests, Government, and Threats to Health, Safety, and the Environment. After cataloging the sorry state of the regulatory institutions tasked with protecting health and the environment, the authors offer innovative suggestions for a set of positive metrics that not only help hold agencies publicly accountable, but also reward agencies for acting proactively. An added, invaluable attribute of these positive metrics is that they can be implemented without additional funding or substantive legislation. Unlike the 1993 Government Performance Results Act and other efforts to devise benchmarks, moreover, Steinzor and Shapiro’s positive metrics proposal focuses on accessible policy goals, clear measures of goal-accomplishment, and a comprehensive diagnosis by the agency when a goal is not met. The causes of agency failure could include, for example, blaming statutory mandates and judicial opinions as well as internal agency handicaps like resources and staffing. For those of us on the sidelines witnessing a succession of regulatory problems and sensing a future of institutional drift, the notion of grounding agency performance in publicly accessible metrics is sheer genius.
Only a month after publication of their book, positive metrics are being put to the test by EPA. In a strategic plan published just last week (link here http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/0/B7CD407BE22F6EF985257746005C21A2), EPA identifies its five priority areas over the next few years (climate change, water quality, community cleanup, chemical safety, environmental enforcement as well as more cross-cutting goals like environmental justice, state partnerships, and strengthening EPA’s workforce) and then establishes dozens of specific strategic measures (i.e., “by 2015, reduce the percentage of women of childbearing agency having mercury levels in blood . . . to 4.6 percent” Draft at p.42 ) to evaluate EPA’s performance. Not only that, but EPA invites public comment on its plan to ensure that it isn’t missing important issues or goals.
At a general level, EPA’s Strategic Plan fits neatly within the Steinzor and Shapiro conception of positive metrics: In the draft Plan, EPA sets concrete goals, identifies priorities, and includes the public in establishing these objectives. There are two features of the EPA’s draft plan that currently diverge from the Steinzor-Shapiro model, however. The first is EPA’s exclusive focus on concrete goals, rather than also including a searching identification of the barriers that impede EPA from accomplishing its lofty objectives. While the “ends” (strategic measures) are certainly important, the institutional means also are in desperate need of attention, and EPA’s report runs the risk of sweeping entrenched institutional problems away, except with regard to workforce issues. In the final version, EPA could include a requirement that when goals are not met, or even when they are, the barriers that EPA encountered in attempting to accomplish them need to be diagnosed and a cross-cutting analysis conducted to identify whether reforms to mandates, administrative processes, or Executive Branch policies are needed.
The second divergence between the EPA’s strategic plan and the Steinzor-Shapiro model for positive metrics is an overarching emphasis on accessible and informative progress reports. Periodic progress reports, touted by Steinzor and Shapiro, would introduce an added measure of accountability through education and political pressure. EPA does indicate it will publish “Annual Performance Reports” and “High Priority Performance Goals” that will assess progress at regular intervals, see Draft p.5, but EPA’s one-paragraph discussion on this does not provide much assurance that the reports will be accessible, publicized, or provide useful blueprints for the public to assess progress and identify challenges that need to be addressed for substantial future progress. Indeed at some level, the most critical feature of the success of positive metrics stems from an opportunity for critical analysis in goal achievement, rather than a sort of annual bean counting. Like the previous suggestion, this potential omission in EPA’s plan would seem easy to remedy with more attention to methods for searching self-evaluation. In these reports, EPA could identify significant institutional and related barriers as well as evaluative metrics, thus initiating the discussion on reform at the same time that it seeks to make identifiable progress.
The Steinzor-Shapiro positive metric might not transform bureaucracy, but it’s sure worth a try. EPA’s current experiment provides an excellent way to test out the idea on the ground, but to get the most out of the experiment EPA should better align its approach with the Steinzor-Shapiro model.