EPA and a Culture in Need of Change

Esteemed law professor, Jonathan Turley, has warned and sounded the alarm in recent months about the growth of the fourth branch of government, the administrative state that continues to grow in size and power – The Rise of the Fourth Branch of Government, over at WashPo.  And as that growth continues on its current trajectory, along with it comes the increased potential for unaccountable government behavior.  It doesn’t have to happen that way, but the forces of power tend to work most effectively in a vacuum or in the absence of accountability – it’s just human behavior.   So, it’s not surprising this week we learn of another case of “bad behavior” at EPA – EPA Accused of Blocking Independent Investigations, over at Huff Post.  This week, Congressman Issa held another oversight hearing involving a dispute between the agency’s Office of Inspector General, the independent watchdog charged by Congress to root out fraud and waste, and a small 10-person office, Office of Homeland Security, established a decade ago in the Administrator’s Office.   This is not the type of shocking fraud case that was witnessed recently in the John Beale matter, but rather involves more a matter of internal governance and authority and accountability, which can be even equally difficult to manage.

The OIG report can be found here.  Inspector Generals are enormously important in keeping agencies honest and functioning properly.  Assistant Inspector General Patrick Sullivan and his staff should be commended for their efforts and courage in the face of agency obstacles, including personal intimidation and threats.  I recall being on the receiving side of similar threats while at EPA – but that for another day.

Bob Perciasepe, the number two official at EPA, was hauled back up before the committee to reinforce the agency’s committment to change.  Bob is a top-notch professional, dedicated to the critical importance of public service, and we the public are fortunate to have someone of his caliber and skills at the agency.  But from all external accounts, the agency’s efforts appear to be more akin to a bucket-brigade trying to douse a three-alarm fire with a shortage of buckets and water.  My sense is that the top leadership feels compelled to fix the problems, but this is a much bigger problem – changing a culture.  Unfortunately, bad cultures have a way of tainting those in the same organization who are conscientious and doing a good job.  As Bob aptly reinforced in his testimony, “I would like to take this opportunity to recognize that the overwhelming majority of the approximately 16,000 EPA employees are dedicated, hardworking, professional public servants.”  He’s right in that regard.  And that is what is so insidious about a culture run amok.  It affects everybody.  Organizational cultures are nuanced and complex, and covering the topic in a short post such as this risks oversimplification.  But what the public is witnessing is akin to a bad apple left in the apple cart too long, affecting all the other perfectly healthy apples around it.  Like any organization, leadership must be diligent about tending the orchard and the apples and going after the bad ones to protect the integrity of the whole.  EPA’s problem is fixable, but it will require time and hard work.