Environmental Protection:

Challenges Facing EPA's Efforts to Reinvent Environmental Regulation

RCED-97-155: Published: Jul 2, 1997. Publicly Released: Aug 5, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined: (1) what the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) reinvention initiatives are and how EPA is structured to carry them out; and (2) what key issues need to be addressed for these initiatives to have their intended effect.

GAO noted that: (1) EPA maintains that its reinvention initiatives seek to reduce paperwork and eliminate obsolete rules, make it easier for businesses to comply with environmental laws, use innovation and flexibility to achieve better environmental results, or engage states, tribes, communities, and citizens in partnerships to protect public health and the environment; (2) in February 1997, the Administrator announced her decision to create an Office of Reinvention, which will provide overall direction and support for EPA's reinvention initiatives; (3) in addition: (a) EPA's program offices participate in agencywide initiatives and have generated some of their own, more medium-specific initiatives; and (b) each of EPA's regional offices has established varied structures and strategies to implement both the EPA-wide and program-specific initiatives; (4) while many of EPA's reinvention efforts are consistent with both the Government Performance and Results Act's goal of focusing on achieving results and with past recommendations by GAO and other organizations to achieve a more integrated, cost-effective approach toward environmental protection, EPA faces significant challenges that must be addressed effectively if reinvention is to succeed: (a) key stakeholders in the reinvention process have expressed concern over the large number of complex and demanding initiatives now being undertaken, as well as confusion over the underlying purpose of some of EPA's major initiatives; (b) EPA has had difficulty achieving "buy-in" among the agency's rank and file, who have grown accustomed to prescriptive, medium-by-medium regulation during EPA's history; (c) EPA has had difficulty achieving agreement among external stakeholders particularly when they perceive that unanimous agreement is required before progress can be made; (d) EPA's process for resolving miscommunication and other problems involving EPA headquarters staff, regional staff, and other stakeholders does not distinguish between problems that require the attention of senior management and those that should be resolved at lower levels; and (e) EPA has an uneven record in evaluating the success of many of its initiatives; (5) in addition, the current prescriptive, medium-specific environmental laws impose requirements that have led to, and tend to reinforce, many of the existing regulatory and behavioral practices that EPA is seeking to change; and (6) as a consequence, EPA will be limited in its ability to reinvent environmental regulation within the existing legislative framework.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has taken actions to: (1) establish a senior management group and process to oversee implementation of reinvention across EPA; (2) develop a strategic framework that better explains how EPA is implementing its reinvention vision; (3) set priorities for reinvention activities and clarify how different initiatives fit together; and (4) develop clarifying guidance for various reinvention initiatives, such as the Common Sense Initiative.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct the Associate Administrator for Reinvention to review the agency's reinvention initiatives to: (1) determine whether there are any that no longer support the agency's overall reinvention goals and should therefore be discontinued; (2) set priorities among those that will be continued; and (3) issue clarifying guidance, as needed, to help ensure that the specific objectives and expectations of continuing initiatives are clear among stakeholders inside and outside the agency.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 1997, EPA developed a white paper entitled, "Consensus Decisionmaking Principles and Applications in the EPA Common Sense Initiative," which was created as guidance for the CSI Council and subcommittees. The document was adopted by the council and, according to EPA, has led to a greater level of satisfaction with the issue of consensus within the context of the Common Sense Initiative.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should improve the prospects for achieving consensus among concerned parties in EPA's reinvention efforts by clarifying the circumstances under which unanimous agreement is required.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA cites a preexisting action (taken in 1996) as a response to this July 1997 recommendation. GAO was aware of the 1996 action, but believed additional measures were needed. EPA maintains that the process it set up in 1996 "is still evolving" and will help to address the issues identified in this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should develop a systematic process that would help to address problems in a timely fashion by identifying which kinds of problems can be resolved at lower levels within the agency and which should be elevated for senior management's attention.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: At the direction of the Senate Appropriations Committee, EPA has contracted with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to assess key reinvention activities. EPA says that an important part of NAPA's work will be to build an evaluation capacity within EPA. EPA also cites a number of key initiatives for which evaluation components are presently being developed, and has increased use of "customer satisfaction" surveys to ensure that activities are responsive to customer needs.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct that each of the agency's initiatives include an evaluation component that measures the extent to which the initiative has had its intended effect.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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