Environment & Energy

EPA Research Arm Can’t Measure Data’s Usefulness: Watchdog (1)

Aug. 19, 2019, 4:51 PM; Updated: Aug. 19, 2019, 7:07 PM

The EPA’s research arm isn’t collecting enough feedback from outside groups to know whether its reports, databases, and software tools are useful to them, says an Aug. 19 report from the agency’s internal watchdog.

The data gap problem isn’t one of the the Environmental Protection Agency’s making, the agency’s Office of the Inspector General added.

States, tribes, communities, and individuals use products from EPA’s Office of Research and Development to help them develop ways to manage air and water pollution and other environmental issues.

The Office of Inspector General had sought to determine whether the agency’s external customers find EPA’s data products useful, scientifically valid, rigorous, and timely.

The Paperwork Reduction Act, however, is interfering with the agency’s Office of Research and Development’s ability to survey more than nine external stakeholders without first getting approval from the White House Office of Management and Budget, the report said.

The EPA didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Environment’s request for comment.

Drafting Request

The research office is now drafting a request to OMB to get approval. That process is expected to take up to 18 months, the agency said.

If the request is denied, the Office of Research and Development said it will come up with a plan to measure customer satisfaction through other means by July 30, 2021, the report said.

The research office has committed to generating more research materials for its non-federal stakeholders by Sept. 30, 2022, under the EPA’s current strategic plan.

Dan Costa, who served as national program director of air, climate, and energy at ORD under President Barack Obama, said the department would sometimes keep its surveys to no more than nine entities to skirt the onerous OMB rule “unless absolutely necessary.”

In some cases, as in for “spot assessments for other planning,” a small sample size can be appropriate, Costa said.

Measuring Satisfaction

Adam Finkel, clinical professor of environmental health at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said the problem of measuring customer satisfaction predates the Trump administration.

“Agencies have always been reluctant” to assess customer satisfaction in a meaningful way, Finkel said. “It’s hard to do. It’s easier to measure interactions than to measure the actual satisfaction or learning. It’s easier to write these strategic plans and say, ‘Last year we had twice as many hits on our website as the previous year.’ It sounds good, and it is good in some ways.”

To Finkel, a former director of health standards at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration, it’s more important for the EPA to disclose how and why it reaches its decisions than it is to simply make its data transparent.

“People who are affected by something would like the agency to agree with them, but whether or not they get their way, they’re interested in the reasoning behind the decision,” he said. “EPA and the other agencies are not good at that. The last thing they want to be transparent about is the thought process behind what they want to do.”

Costa said that within the last 12 to 15 years, the EPA’s research group has undergone a “major transformation” to make its work more valuable to stakeholders.

“We were once called the University of EPA,” Costa said. “People did good, publishable research. And in the beginning of the Obama administration, there was this effort to say, ‘We need to make sure the people who need information get the information they need. You’re not a job shop. Your work has to fit into a big picture, moving toward this goal of improving public health and the environment.’”

(Updates with comments from Dan Costa.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Susan Bruninga at sbruninga@bloombergenvironment.com

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