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.”
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.