Having mused over our journal’s fall 2010 forum (The Public Manager, presently in layout) on lessons learned from Katrina and the more recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – it’s hard not to get sick over government’s failure to see in advance that something was terribly wrong, about to go over the cliff. Within the past several months, I’ve read in the morning newspapers articles like:
· “$8.7 billion in Iraqi cash not traceable” – the subtext being “An audit finds the Pentagon cannot account for the money meant for reconstruction”
· “FBI director says he doesn’t know the extent of cheating” – the subtext being “(does) …the FBI know its own rules for conducting surveillance on Americans?”
· “On Day 100, lessons learned from the (BP) spill” – one of the biggest being “Regulators shouldn’t sleep with industry”
· “Offshore drilling to require stricter environmental scrutiny…ending a practice in which government regulators essentially rubber-stamped potentially hazardous deepwater projects…”
· “(US) Coast Guard OK’d frequent use of dispersants, reports indicate” – subtext being despite the Obama administration’s direction and the EPA’s urging to restrict use of dispersants to ‘rare cases’ upon appeal, “…the approval process (administered by the Coast Guard) appears to be somewhat pro forma…”
· “Feds urged work on pipeline in Mich. Spill” – the subtext being despite urging from the US Department of Transportation’s pipeline safety agency (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) that the Canadian company operating the system check for corrosion problems in the 1900-mile network, the work wasn’t done and an estimated 1 million gallons of crude oil escaped into the Kalamazoo River in southern Michigan.
Compared to these “downers,” I also read one article that actually caught public managers getting their oversight function right. Such as “Area beaches mostly clear of pollutants, testing shows;” – the subtext being “Palm Beach County (FL) exceeded standards for two types of harmful bacteria…” Yea, we’re testing and disclosing our research findings timely!!
As someone who spent virtually all his government career in federal Executive Branch agencies – mostly in program operations – my view of oversight responsibility is that it starts at the front lines. That is, with organizations having delegated authority for implementing programs and related “legislative and appropriated authorities.” Yes, even those programs not run directly by career federal civil servants, but through states and localities, nonprofit grantees, and private sector contractors. Alongside these line organizations (mainly the cabinet departments and their sub-cabinet off-shoots, such as FEMA, IRS, the SEC, and the Federal Reserve, for example), are organizations that serve the President, Department Heads, and the Congress in their own oversight of our front-line overseers (e.g., OMB, OIGs, GAO, etc.).
Moreover, these same line organizations are stewards of the public trust – protecting our nation’s resources, assets and the unique missions embedded in their organizations’ charters. For example, the US Department of the Interior’s National Park Service and Fish & Wildlife Service; the Department of Commerce’s National Weather Service, Bureau of the Census, National Institute of Standards & Technology and Patent & Trade Office; the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service and Food & Nutrition Service; the Department of Health & Human Services’ Children’s Bureau, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, and the Food & Drug Administration; to name but a few at the federal level that make the local newspapers and, on occasion, 60 Minutes whenever something goes awry.
So…we should have lots to talk about on the matter of oversight and stewardship – hopefully with a focus on systems in place and organizational cultures prepared to keep things from going awry. Sort of a ‘Catcher in the Rye’ subtext, you might say. All of this is good news if what we’re after is an open dialogue on the full range of oversight and stewardship responsibilities exercised at every level of government. We’ll do our part by having more on the theme of “Best Practices in Oversight, Stewardship and Accountability” in the winter issue of The Public Manager, on our Web site (www.thepublicmanager.org) and in events through the remainder of 2010 and into 2011.
In the meantime. let us hear from you on what your organization (federal, state or local) is doing to raise the bar on its oversight and stewardship performance to keep its charges from going over the cliff.
Warren Master, President & Editor-in-Chief, The Public Manager