EPA Plans for Greater Openness in Coming Years
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will incorporate greater transparency, accountability, and community engagement throughout its operations over the next five years, according to the agency's recently released Fiscal Year (FY) 2011-2015 Strategic Plan. The new strategic plan is the agency's first developed under the Obama administration, which has made increasing government openness a high priority.
Throughout the 68-page strategic plan, the agency repeatedly comments on the need to work with a diverse stakeholder community and to provide information in a transparent and useful manner. The document establishes three "core values" upon which the rest of the plan is founded: science, transparency, and the rule of law.
In addition to setting transparency as one of its three core values, EPA's plan incorporates open government concepts throughout its cross-cutting fundamental strategies. These strategies address a number of concerns raised by environmental and open government advocates over how the agency conducts its operations.
EPA's plan identifies five strategic goals and five cross-cutting fundamental strategies that the agency expects "will be used routinely by the Agency’s senior leadership as a management tool." The plan's five strategic goals are:
- Goal 1: Taking Action on Climate Change and Improving Air Quality
- Goal 2: Protecting America's Waters
- Goal 3: Cleaning Up Communities and Advancing Sustainable Development
- Goal 4: Ensuring the Safety of Chemicals and Preventing Pollution
- Goal 5: Enforcing Environmental Laws
EPA also establishes five "cross-cutting fundamental strategies" that it plans to adopt agency-wide. These strategies are:
- Expanding the Conversation on Environmentalism
- Working for Environmental Justice and Children’s Health
- Advancing Science, Research, and Technological Innovation
- Strengthening State, Tribal, and International Partnerships
- Strengthening EPA's Workforce and Capabilities
While transparency is a recurring theme throughout much of the plan, access to and management of information were most prominent in two goals and one strategy. The strategy of "Advancing Science, Research and Technological Innovation" seems to respond to repeated complaints by public interest groups that science had taken a backseat to politics at EPA under the Bush administration. The "Expanding the Conversation on Environmentalism" strategy ties directly into the Obama administration’s open government efforts to improve participation and collaboration at agencies. The "Ensuring the Safety of Chemicals and Preventing Pollution" goal builds on a long history of disclosure of chemical risks.
A significant concern raised by environmental and open government groups has been the need for scientific and technical information to be presented to the public in ways that can be easily and readily understood. Among the new cross-cutting fundamental strategies, EPA calls for advancing science, research, and technological innovation. The agency states, "To maximize the impact and utility of our research, EPA will communicate the design, definition, conduct, transfer, and implementation of the work we do. We will translate our science so that it is accessible, understandable, relevant to, and used by stakeholders and the general public."
Many environmental advocates would agree with EPA's strategy to advance scientific and technical research. Environmental advocates have identified a long list of data gaps they believe must be filled in order to provide the strongest protections for the public. These research and data gaps include understanding the wide-ranging impacts of climate change, many of which climate experts claim we are already beginning to experience. According to the strategic plan, EPA will address this climate change research gap and incorporate its findings into its rulemakings and other decisions.
One of the agency's priority goals is implementation of the new mandatory greenhouse gas (GHG) reporting rule. EPA promises that by June 15, 2011, all GHG emissions data will be available to the public. The agency is still developing a final rule on how it will evaluate company claims about confidential business information (CBI).
Additionally, advocates for stronger scientific integrity at EPA have long been waiting for guidance from the Obama administration on protecting agency research from political manipulation and distortion. Open government advocates also seek an agency communications policy that clearly sets forth procedures for public and media access to scientific and technical experts at the agency. The new strategic plan does not address either issue.
Transparency and Community Engagement
EPA's plan includes establishing a fundamental strategy for expanding the conversation on environmentalism, by which EPA intends to improve communication and collaboration with stakeholder groups, especially citizens in low-income, tribal, and minority communities. In a message accompanying the strategic plan, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson stated that EPA "will take broad steps to expand the conversation on environmentalism to communities across America, building capacity, increasing transparency and listening to the public."
It is through this strategy that the agency's strategic plan seems to offer the most opportunity for progress on open government issues. To achieve greater community engagement, the agency plans to incorporate a list of transparency principles into its regular functions. To aid the efforts, EPA is asking all employees to "bring their creativity and talents to their everyday work to enhance outreach and transparency in all our programs."
EPA reiterated its plan to make environmental information accessible to diverse public stakeholders. EPA will work to ensure that "science is explained clearly and accessible to all communities, communicating and educating in plain language the complexities of environmental, health, policy, and regulatory issues." Moreover, the agency will seek to "educate and empower individuals, communities, and Agency partners in decision making through public access to environmental information and data."
Addressing another concern identified by environmental advocates, EPA's plan seeks to help citizens build the skills needed to engage policymakers by encouraging "citizens to understand the complexities and impacts of environmental issues and environmental stewardship, and provide avenues and tools that enhance their ability to participate in processes that could affect them."
EPA succinctly summed up the basic reforms sought by many open government advocates when it stated in its strategic plan that it intends to "ensure that the Agency's regulations, policies, budget, and decision-making processes are transparent and accessible through increased access to environmental data sources, community right-to-know tools, and direct stakeholder engagement."
EPA has made ensuring the safety of chemicals one of its strategic goals. However, the agency acknowledges that the nation's primary chemicals statute, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is flawed and in need of reform. EPA is seeking greater authority to collect data on the health and safety of chemicals. Under current law, the EPA's authority to collect information is so restricted that the agency has only been able to require testing on around 200 of the 84,000 chemicals on the TSCA Inventory. To date, only five existing chemicals have been regulated under TSCA's ban authority.
The EPA already has implemented several initiatives to increase transparency regarding information on the health risks of chemicals. EPA has made changes to the way it handles CBI claims from chemical manufacturers. EPA has repeatedly admitted that this privilege is overused and abused and denies the public important information on chemical risks. With the new policies, manufacturers will find it harder to conceal the health risks of certain products. The agency has even set a specific performance measurement for reducing the impact of CBI claims, seeking "to make all health and safety studies available to the public for chemicals in commerce, to the extent allowed by law" by 2015.
Rather than codify improved transparency as a separate goal or strategy, EPA has incorporated key aspects of open government throughout its strategic plan. By weaving transparency, participation, and collaboration into the fabric of the agency's guiding plan, EPA takes a major step toward creating a culture of openness. Of course, the true test will be in how successfully EPA's daily operations comport with this plan, and whether staff, from top to bottom, sincerely adopt these concepts. The plan gives open government advocates another tool to compel meaningful changes from the agency and another opportunity to strengthen accountability.