More on Flint… and doing one’s job

We’ve posted several articles and opinions on the long slow story that was and continues to be Flint Michigan’s infamous water failure.

Just out is an Environmental Protection Agency review by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General. Here is an excellent article summarizing the findings.

Suffice it to say, the lesson I want to highlight today is not about relatively simple water chemistry or a front line water supplier’s disregard for what the data is screaming at them, but rather about the oversight role.

Our governmental systems tend to have local governments carry out most of the work. This is as it should be when it comes to providing essential services and responding to problems near their source. Above the local governments are regional and state governments. They typically have made general guidance available to local governments and, much more importantly, specific requirements linked to grant funds and permit conditions. Above them are the federal systems that offer more of the same and provide an essential backstop for when the lower levels of government can’t or won’t do their jobs.

An understandable tension arises when a higher level tries to adjust the actions of a lower level. The lower level becomes resentful and resistant. The higher level often would prefer to wear the “white hat” of helping the lower level, and the “black hat” of raising unwanted awareness of a problem or overseeing enforcement is often uncomfortable. Yet, that is how the system works best. Sure there are nuances such as making a phone call to get the real story before initiating a disciplinary action and notifying responsible officials before responding to media inquiries. But we need this oversight when the data indicates a clear problem.

In a time where the local, state, and federal levels all feel as though they have more responsibilities than people to carry them out, it falls on the managers in these agencies to take stock of what is required. If an agency asks for data, they ought to review or use the data. If the local government sent “up” all they were supposed to, it seems as though review of the data would be helpful and therefore a ”white hat” function. If the upper level doesn’t review it one could easily begin to blame the oversight agency for not doing its job.

And that seems to be part of what the Office of Inspector General is getting at.

— Steve Woods, executive director