Political leaders at the EPA are touting a management system aimed at making the agency faster and more efficient, even as the number of EPA employees is dwindling.
But rank and file employees at the Environmental Protection Agency have pushed back against the claims, arguing that the system implemented under the Trump administration is largely a waste of time and doesn’t focus on the agency’s core goals of protecting the environment and human health.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler trumpeted the system known as the EPA Lean Management System (ELMS) during a congressional hearing last week, saying over half the agency was using it daily.
“We are already seeing real progress, such as reducing the backlog of new permit applications older than six months by 65% by the end” of fiscal 2019, he said in written testimony to a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
The focus on employee efficiency comes at a time when EPA staffing is at its lowest level in decades. President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2020 budget proposes to slash that number by an additional 13.6%.
The lean management system is a set of activities across more than 800 metrics designed to find and fix workflow problems. The system uses wall-mounted boards to measure a team’s progress toward a certain goal, as well as weekly 15-minute group meetings for staff to talk about problems and possible solutions.
In an interview, assistant deputy administrator Henry Darwin, the system’s chief champion, said it has helped the agency process permits and grants faster, whittle down its Freedom of Information Act backlog, and root dead links out of its website, among other goals.
ELMS also uses lean management philosophies first developed at Toyota to snip out waste in workflow and focus on steps that create “value,” as defined by the organization.
“My reason for being here is to make EPA a better-run organization, regardless of policies of the administration in charge,” said Darwin, who rolled out a similar system when he was Arizona’s chief of operations. “I want to make sure that whatever policies are being set by this agency can be executed as quickly and effectively as possible.”
Some of the noteworthy successes under ELMS include a reduction in the number of bad links on the agency’s website from some 13,000 to fewer than 2,000; a drop in the funding time of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants program from 34 days to 14; and a streamlining of the Superfund cost recovery process from 30 days to five, according to Darwin, also the agency’s chief operating officer.
The system started in fiscal 2018, and parts of it are still being rolled out across the agency. In fiscal 2019, agency employees notched 191 projects that have used ELMS to improve performance by at least 25%, Darwin said. By 2022, the EPA wants to have 250 such projects up and running, he said.
Dissent From Rank and File
Most government offices do need to get better at working more efficiently, in part because the lack of a profit motive causes agencies to grow bloated and unfocused, said Harry Kenworthy, principal of the Quality and Productivity Improvement Center, which provides training to federal and state agencies.
But several EPA employees told Bloomberg Law they don’t see the value in ELMS, saying it’s not a good fit for a regulatory bureaucracy.
“These performance improvement things are for when you’re counting widgets and things that come down the production line,” said one staffer based in Region 5 in Chicago. “But a lot of what happens in government is not widgets. It’s policy, intellectual work.” Employees spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the press.
After several meetings with managers, that employee’s team settled on producing more fact sheets and other written materials.
“We had little sticky notes, and one week we would move it to the ‘first draft’ category, and so on,” he said. “We were literally moving sticky notes and then just looking at each other and rolling our eyes.”
Now the team doesn’t even bother to hold weekly ELMS meetings, having convened its last one in October 2019, the employee said. Another employee, also in Region 5, said ELMS misfires because it doesn’t address the EPA’s core mission of environmental protection.
Her team’s ELMS goal is to confirm invoices and receipts with outside parties on time, to ensure funds are being disbursed properly.
“We do have to do that. It’s important,” she said. “But it’s rearranging the deck chairs. We have a 20-year difference in life expectancy along the [Lake Michigan] lakeshore and in industrial communities. Where is the ELMS to end health disparities?”
An employee based in Region 3 in Philadelphia had similar concerns, calling the system “burdensome.”
“We think ELMS is a waste of time designed to take EPA employees’ time away from the EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment,” said Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney in Region 5 and president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 in Chicago.
In response to those critiques, Darwin said some teams may be focusing on the wrong goals.
“We have allowed teams to choose what they want to get better at, because we don’t want them to feel like this is overwhelming,” he said. “Over time we’ll get better at this.”
He allowed that trying to produce more fact sheets, as the Region 5 team is doing, isn’t appropriate, as it focuses on volume instead of other priorities. Darwin also said he understood the reluctance among some staffers to embrace ELMS, but most employees were in favor.
“We’re hoping that people over time will see the benefit and make the best of it,” he said. “But we have cynics in every organization.”
Darwin also claimed that less than 1% of employees’ time is spent on ELMS.
Managers Also Defend Program
Some EPA managers have praised ELMS. Deborah Szaro, the deputy regional administrator for Region 1 in Boston, said 80% of the region’s staff is using the system, and that 15 of its 34 projects have already improved by 25%.
As an example, Szaro said procurement requests for information technology for Region 1’s emergency response branch used to get kicked back regularly because they were incomplete. Since undergoing ELMS, no requests have gotten kicked back, she said.
Similarly, Robert A. Kaplan, acting regional administrator in Region 5, said his office overcame an “initial rocky start” but the system has since helped sharpen employees’ focus.
“Instead of the literally hundreds and hundreds of goals, all competing for time and attention, this lays it out in really one set of things for each work unit to focus on,” Kaplan said.
Costs, Benefits Unclear
Darwin said it wasn’t possible to quantify ELMS’ costs and benefits.
“We chose not to make this about cost, because we did not want the rank and file to think that this process improvement was about costs,” he said. “We get accused a lot in this administration about making everything about money.”
The agency has hired some contractors to help roll out ELMS with performance improvement, but has spent “very few dollars,” Darwin said.
One contract with a Fairfax, Va.-based company called Wheelhouse Group Inc. was signed in December 2018 and pays out $1.24 million for organizational development and coaching support services, including ELMS.
An EPA spokeswoman said that, to date, the agency has used less than 8% of those funds to order work “directly or loosely tied to ELMS-related work.”
Christina Barbour, a Wheelhouse spokeswoman, also said the company’s work on ELMS is “a very small part of the contract,” but declined to give details.