Flint report shows government’s size is less critical than its effectiveness

Over the years, I’ve read a fair number of government documents. For the most part, they’re easily forgettable, usually written in the passive voice, and far too often filled with weasel-worded, polysyllabic garbage.

Not so the most recent report of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, which was released last week. In fact, a letter the task force sent to the governor on Dec. 29 was a clear tipoff as to what the core of the report would find.

In a subsection labeled “Failure in Substance and Tone of MDEQ Response to the Public,” it said:

“Throughout 2015, as the public raised concerns and as independent studies and testing were conducted and brought to the attention of the MDEQ, the agency’s response was often one of aggressive dismissal, belittlement, and attempts to discredit these efforts and the individuals involved. We find both the tone and substance of many MDEQ public statements to be completely unacceptable.

“In a real way, the MDEQ represents the public, including the very individuals it treated dismissively and disrespectfully in public statements. What is disturbing about MDEQ’s responses, however, is the persistent tone of scorn and derision. In fact, the MDEQ seems to have been more determined to discredit the work of others – who ultimately proved to be right – than to pursue its own oversight responsibility.”

The report is sprinkled with tough language throughout, raking, for example, the “single-minded legalistic focus” of the MDEQ, an agency whose culture was more interested in achieving legal compliance than in protecting Flint residents against poisoned drinking water. Noting that this was a case both of “regulatory failure … and abysmal public response” of state government.

The task force finally concludes: “The Flint water crisis never should have happened.”

Whoa!

Let’s give a big award to the task force and its co-chairs, Ken Sikkema, a former state Senate Majority Leader and a senior fellow at Public Sector Consultants (Disclosure: The Center for Michigan is a PSC client) and Chris Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council, for good leadership of the bipartisan task force which was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder late last year to get to the bottom of the Flint debacle. The report makes no bones about it: Major responsibility for the Flint crisis rests with state government. Sure, there were failures at all levels of state, local and federal government; but primary responsibility and accountability rests with the State of Michigan.

Frankly, I’m amazed and admiring in equal parts that the task force’s report reads the way it does and that Gov. Snyder had the guts to release it without unleashing the censor hounds. Folks in Lansing tell me the task force’s previous letter to Gov. Snyder was so powerful it broke through the curtains of denial and finger-pointing that had up to then shielded state attention to the situation in Flint and set in motion efforts to actually address the situation.

Personally, I think the governor has been the victim over a long time of very bad advice and dissembling by many of his subordinates. This augmented a weakness in his leadership style that appears to have preferred to have relied on reports delivered by “experts” and less on actual, on-the-ground hard looks at what was going on.

Reflecting on this gives me a thought: There is a good reason politicians are often put in charge of large matters. It takes somebody with an ear for public opinion to go out, get dirt under your fingernails and find out what’s really going on. Hands-off, data-driven management is not leadership.

For example, the way the Michigan emergency manager statute empowered EM’s with power to make local decisions based purely on financial considerations. But as the Bible puts it, we do not live by bread alone. Financial management is important, but it is not the sole criterion for good government. The Michigan EM statute concentrates on money and budgets, not on whether local governments actually provide residents with public goods like safe drinking water.

What distinguishes good politicians from bad ones is that the bad ones too often have tin ears. They hear local people complaining about things – the color or smell of the water, for example – and immediately classify their concerns as gripes. If Flint teaches anything, it’s that when lots of local people complain loudly and persistently about things going wrong, usually there is something going wrong.

And that should be the key signal for a good political leader to get directly involved.

My conclusion is simple. We don’t need more government; we don’t less government. We need – desperately – effective government.

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Matt
Tue, 03/29/2016 - 9:55am
As to your assertion that the size of government doesn't matter, why is it that muni governments insist so often that water/sewer systems along with others be part of that given city government rather than independent entities whether public or private? Wouldn't/couldn't running these systems independently make them less susceptible to the governance and financial problems that plague our large cities? Seems that much of Flint waters ongoing problems prior to the EM were politically driven. I would think that breaking out some or as many as possible city owed enterprises into independent organizations would make citizens less susceptible to catastrophic problems as more of our cities hit the bricks in the future as well as making it easier to evaluate their performance without having city political interference.
Rick
Tue, 03/29/2016 - 1:07pm
Spot on Phil. What was sickening to me was the way the Governor tried to deflect blame and accountability to so many others: 'government', MDEQ, the EPA, Flint, etc. Who hired and put in place the emergency manager? Who gave that manager his marching orders? Who appointed the senior staff at MDEQ? Who ignored all the news about water issues in the media?
C Smith
Tue, 03/29/2016 - 10:05am
We are all at fault for what happened in Flint, not just the State of Michigan. We should have heard these people screaming about the water, but none of us did. It seems like Darnell Earley (Flint EM) was put in place and was told to fix Flint. Almost like "here you go, fix it! We will be back in a year or two to see how you are doing". In contrast you look at Detroit. Kevyn Orr (Detroit EM) was constantly under the microscope. Day to day the status of Detroit and what Kevyn Orr was up to could be found in the headlines of the Detroit News and Free Press. Everything Kevyn Orr did was put under a microscope. The battle over the Great Lakes Water Authority alone took months and INPUT from three Counties and their leaders. Boy, what a contrast in approach between the two cities. Big break down in government. All of us need to be more involved to make better government.
Patsy Cantrell
Tue, 03/29/2016 - 11:06am
Good analysis of why government services should not be privatized nor evaluated using only financial models and data. Products and services provided by the private sector are profit driven and that is not a good fit for providing public goods and services. We knew this at one time but this seems to be the season of relearning many past lessons.
tyler
Sun, 04/03/2016 - 11:04am
I don't agree. You are trying to take one incident, the Flint water debacle, that was a clear failure of government and generalize that for profit businesses can't be trusted to provide public services. To suggest that only government can produce high quality services in the face of a catastrophic governmental failure baffles me.
Richard Burke
Tue, 03/29/2016 - 11:26am
Absolutely. Effective government acting in a non-partisan way. And good journalism too, to keep us informed, An informed public is a requirement for effective government. Thanks to the BRIDGE.
Bernadette`
Tue, 03/29/2016 - 1:08pm
I would agree, we need "effective" government. I do believe Governor Snyder was given lots of bad advice as well as not served well by his people, which directly reflects on his competency as a leader. Governor Snyder refuses to take ultimate accountability though. Since he wanted to run the state like a business, I would like to propose we think about this situation in terms of a business and lets pretend the electorate are the "board of directors". The board of a company that has just discovered thousands of people have been poisoned by lead due to mismanagement by several departments in the company, and the CEO was not aware of what was going on. This "mistake" is now costing millions of dollars in bottled water, medical intervention, legal fees, consulting fees, etc. In the real world, what would happen to that CEO?
Observer
Tue, 03/29/2016 - 3:54pm
Mr. Power says, "This augmented a weakness in his leadership style that appears to have preferred to have relied on reports delivered by “experts” and less on actual, on-the-ground hard looks at what was going on." Does he think it is possible to effectively govern Michigan by dashing around the state and personally examining every situation? Isn't it necessary to rely on subordinates for most of your information? And wasn't he entitled to rely on the professional civil servants at MDEQ and the Department of Health and Human Services? How was he to know they weren't competent, capable public servants? He goes on to say, "For example, the way the Michigan emergency manager statute empowered EM’s with power to make local decisions based purely on financial considerations." He has fallen victim to the common illusion that it is a matter of dollars versus lives. (An illusion that the Detroit Free Press in its' Sunday article questioning whether MDEQ favors business at the expense of health also fell victim to.) It is not. Dollars only serve as a yardstick. It is always a matter of lives versus lives or health versus jobs. Does he, or anyone else, seriously believe that anyone decided to allow the children of Flint to be poisoned with lead in order to save four million dollars a year? Emergency Managers were empowered to maximize the welfare of citizens given the resources available to them. That entails ensuring that local governments "actually provide residents with public goods like safe drinking water." He correctly says, "There is a good reason politicians are often put in charge of large matters." That is because there is no other choice. Politicians are in charge of providing "public goods". Goods that the private sector cannot provide. And, as he notes with his plea for "effective government", government has a very difficult time being effective. That being the case, shouldn't government limit the number of things it attempts to do?
Andrew
Tue, 03/29/2016 - 4:42pm
I, and many others, sought relief from the plainly undemocratic (and arguably racist) emergency manager law(s) and the rights taken from the citizens by its use. So, where did the third branch of government act to overcome the unconstitutional dimensions of the EM law(s). "We are not persuaded that the issues presented, merit our review." Or worse, the bench embraced the law and was dismissive of complaints aimed at it. So checks and balances where were you? "Effective government" is not only a matter for the other two branches.
Duane
Wed, 03/30/2016 - 12:01am
“Personally, I think the governor has been the victim over a long time of very bad advice and dissembling by many of his subordinates. “ Here we go again blame and then excuse. Mr. Power seems have a ‘tin ear’ to the public distrust. He is already excusing those who created the current situation. He lacks a sense of how accountability works or even how the state of government reached its current state. If we are to rebuild the public trust in government then we need to start working on change, we need to decide on the purpose of government and the purpose of each program, we need to describe the expected results of each program and establish metrics to verify the results are being achieved or how programs need to be adjusted, we need to work on transparency that is integral to the functioning of each program and not something that is rolled out only when bad things happen, we need to work on recognizing and investigating program successes so we can learn how to leverage that success. It is not a time to excuse people from what has happened, it is a time to learn from events and change how we do things. It is not a time to categorize people's feelings about government, it is a time to have a conversation about new/innovative ways to change government and how it serves the people.
Charles
Wed, 03/30/2016 - 9:46am
Good analysis Mr. Powers. One comment above talked about how Detroit was under scrutiny by the Free Press and News. There is no longer a daily paper with resources for strong investigative journalism in Flint to provide that scrutiny. We need more of it. As to Snyder, the potential poisoning of a city is not "every situation" as one of the comments above inferred. Snyder, as a leader of the people, had to be more involved. When there is such catastrophic failure, a leader does not say "my troops lost the battle", he says "he" lost the battle...period. This has been a failure of leadership both in its cause and in taking responsibility.
Tony
Thu, 03/31/2016 - 3:11pm
Mr. Power, I'm not sure why you would think the Flint Water Advisory Task Force report had anything to do with the relationship between a governments size and effectiveness. Nor do I understand how you would be either "amazed" or "admiring" that the Snyder Administration released the report without censoring it. Sounds like you set the bar quite low for the Governor. Deserving as he as proven himself to be of low expectations, you seem to have gone a bit further if not lower, by claiming: "Personally, I think the governor has been the victim over a long time of very bad advice and dissembling by many of his subordinates." Snyder a victim of his subordinates "dissembling"? Really? He's not a victim at all! He has tolerated his subordinates dissembling and practiced plenty of it himself. Did you notice how many times he invoked the scoundrels response of "I don't recall" while under oath a few weeks ago before the House Oversight Committee? Not only has he claimed not to "have been involved" he also claims to not have known if he may have been involved.
Thu, 03/31/2016 - 5:41pm
"For example, the way the Michigan emergency manager statute empowered EM’s with power to make local decisions based purely on financial considerations. But as the Bible puts it, we do not live by bread alone. Financial management is important, but it is not the sole criterion for good government. The Michigan EM statute concentrates on money and budgets, not on whether local governments actually provide residents with public goods like safe drinking water." And who pushed the EM law? .... The Gov. Counting beans instead of lives.
William Plumpe
Sun, 04/03/2016 - 1:29am
I think Governor Snyder was hampered by a management style that is often too hands off and afraid of micromanaging. I think government unlike the private sector requires close monitoring and proper oversight is essential to ensure things get done correctly especially if you are implementing an entirely new management style that has not been attempted before. I think oversight and accountability in government is critical to effectiveness---getting things done and done right and transparency---communicating results to the public. I would suggest a bipartisan Citizen Review Board similar to Police Review Boards be established to monitor actions of the Governor's Office and the Legislature on a regular and continuing basis. An independent watchdog group that oversees the actions and the functions of the Governor's Office and the Legislature and issues a quarterly report to the public. The members of this Board could be elected or appointed but are set up to be bipartisan. I also think legislators should not set their own time/vacation schedules but that a schedule be worked out by this Board that provides vacation, sick time and other benefits that are in line with similar positions in private industry.
Duane
Sun, 04/03/2016 - 2:15am
I am not an expert on the specifics of the Flint water fiasco. However, I feel an important underlying element is not receiving sufficient emphasis. Certainly Phil is correct the the issue of government effectiveness is close to the core of the issue. However as a long time public official and observer of government effectiveness (or lack thereof), I feel that appointed vs elected is not the issue. The paraphrase liberally from Clausewitz, public officials be they elected or appointed operate "in the fog of governance", i e. competing agendas and priorities, egos and widely varying levels of competence, resource and time constraints, frequent citizen apathy and/or ignorance etc. So how (and why) does one cut thru this fog of governance? By being very strongly mission driven (and that mission being the commonweal) and by applying a strong set of ethical values to each of the many situations and issues faced every day. If the approach had been applied consistently in Flint (from all levels of government and from government officials elected or appointed) the Flint situation would have been resolved early and well and would not have gotten so far out of hand prior to being effectively addressed,
Brian
Mon, 04/04/2016 - 2:40pm
Is anyone investigating those who allegedly lied to the Governor about the water being safe in Flint?