MDEQ’s institutional culture – nature vs nurture?

12 Dec 2011

Well, it’s official – Anne Couture is now the interim head of the MDEQ’s Remediation Division. Representatives of the current administration have stated that many of the State’s agencies, and the MDEQ (and the RD) in particular, need a more customer-focused orientation. A few years ago, the MDEQ scored, at best, a C- in customer service in a Chamber of Commerce survey.

Recently, I was at a meeting where Anne spoke and she dedicated the majority of her comments to her plans to address the MDEQ’s culture. This raised a number of questions with me:

  • Does the DEQ staff have an anti-business mindset?
  • If so, how does the DEQ staff come by this arguably problematic attitude?
  • Does the agency train it into the staff or select staff with this anti-business mindset?
  • Can this mindset be unlearned?
  • If so, how?

My view is that there needs to be a balance in the agency that promotes economic growth without sacrificing environmental protection.  There are many in the business community, as noted above, who believe that the DEQ staff has swung near to the far end of the pendulum and that no risk is acceptable.

While, I suspect that such a mind-set  can be unlearned, I highly doubt that it will be with the current staff.  I think the history of hyper-risk avoidance (despite the Legislature’s mandate of promoting risk-based closure) combined with a long history of strong anti-business hires into a strong anti-business environment makes it difficult for Anne or any one manager to turn the tide.  Also, the civil service structure hamstrings management’s ability to incentivize desired staff actions or to deter undesirable denials of closures.  Finally, I have certainly seen staff attitudes of “he/she’s just the current boss, there will be another one after the next election – we can wait this one out.”  As depressing as it sounds, I think Anne will  be nibbling around the edges of this hostile culture.  I hope she proves me wrong as she is currently planning a two day mega-session to try and get regulators and the regulated community on the same page!

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