Posted on November 5, 2018 by Scott Fulton
These past months have been turbulent times for my old agency, EPA. Shortly before this writing, Scott Pruitt resigned in a cloud of allegations about ethical and judgment lapses, proving once again that, in Washington, D.C., process fouls are often more undoing than policy choices. And, of course, if your policy choices are provocative, all the greater the need to, as my mother would say, “Keep your nose clean,” as the sharp knives will no doubt be out, ready to slice and dice if the opportunity is presented.
The charges against Pruitt are still under investigation by EPA’s Office of Inspector General and other bodies, so I’ll not go too far in speaking to them other than to say that they are striking — and likely unprecedented — in their number and pattern. Whether or not Pruitt is ultimately found to have violated the law, operating in a manner that creates openings for issues of this kind is itself problematic. These are unforced errors in the classic sense.
With this as backdrop, I thought I might take the occasion to offer some suggestions to Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, or to whomever the next confirmed administrator might be, about possible ways to help EPA recover its footing and put some separation between the turbulence of these past months and where the agency goes from here.
First, there would be value in some messaging that reinforces EPA’s core mission — environmental protection — and the environmental quality goals behind it. There are different ways to achieve the mission, and of course the work needs to be undertaken in a manner that envisions environmental quality and economic development as compatible objectives. But clarity is important in terms of the unique contribution EPA makes in ensuring that development occurs in a way that also satisfies the environmental quality guarantees embedded in our laws. This is a vital and difficult calling, and one with respect to which clarity is important.
One way to get this message out is to do so through the budget. I and many others have been baffled by budgets from this administration that propose cutting both EPA and the categorical grants to the states. Such budgets project a fundamental questioning of the need for an environmental protection enterprise anywhere in government, begging the need for some remessaging on this front.
Second, make adherence to the Standards of Conduct for Executive Branch Employees a personal and organizational priority. A successor coming in the wake of allegations of this kind always has the opportunity to distinguish him or herself on the basis of adherence to the highest ethical standards. This is of course a time-limited opportunity, but you will likely be remembered most for how you navigate a shift in this arena.
Third, after Pruitt’s stumbles, recommit to openness. A renewed commitment to transparency will help the agency in turning the corner. Therefore, Wheeler’s issuance of his own “Fishbowl Memo” in the tradition of William D. Ruckelshaus is more than welcome. “This memorandum reaffirms those commitments,” the Acting Administrator told agency staff. “I encourage all EPA employees to uphold the contents of this memorandum and conduct themselves and their business in a manner worthy of the public’s trust and confidence. Our success as an agency depends on it.”
Fourth, hit the reset button in the relationship with career leadership and staff. The word in the hallways of EPA is that the career folks have thus far been relegated to the distant sidelines during this administration and have rarely been present for administrator briefings and consultations. There are also rumblings — some of them exposed in the media coverage — that Pruitt had a tendency to act first and consult with the agency’s career experts only after a problem relative to the action emerged. This is how mistakes are made. All and all, the relationship between the political leadership under Pruitt and careerists at EPA has left a serious morale issue that needs to be addressed if the career workforce is to be put to productive use by this administration.
It is common for a new administration to come in suspicious of the loyalties and biases of the career institution that they inherit. But at some point, and usually long before where we are now, the administration comes to see the career institution as an expert support function that is ready and willing to help implement its policy agenda.
Can the Trump EPA recover from its stumbles? Sure, but likely only if it makes some pivots. Maybe by the time you read this, some of the steps suggested here will already have been taken. I hope so.
[This piece originally appeared in the September-October 2018 issue of The Environmental Forum® and is reprinted with permission