For Rusty Harris-Bishop, the Environmental Protection Agency’s communications coordinator for Region 9 and a remedial project manager in the superfund division, working 3,000 miles from headquarters isn’t without challenges — starting with the three-hour time difference.
“We will get into the office at 8 a.m. and we will have a call waiting for us and they want something by noon their time, so that gives us an hour to get something to them. So I don’t know if they always appreciate the time difference,” said Harris-Bishop, who works in San Francisco. “But we always joke that after 2 p.m. you don’t have to worry about anything for the rest of the day, because a call from headquarters will not be coming in after 5 p.m. their time.”
Harris-Bishop is partly joking about the time difference, but it is an example of the disconnect that sometimes occurs between headquarters and field offices.
The Environmental Protection Agency is one of several departments trying to establish a one-agency approach, and that includes reaching out to the field offices more regularly.
“The agency has made great strides to be an agency, not agencies where Region 3 is a personal fiefdom and etc. etc,” said Russ Swan, EPA’s chief of the underground storage tank, asbestos, lead and pesticides branch in the Office of Regional Counsel for Region 3 in Philadelphia. “Headquarters — yes, that is where the buck stops. But there really is a lot of give-and-take between regional offices and headquarters. Sometimes the communication can be a little interesting, but reasonable minds can disagree. But there is mutual respect for everyone’s viewpoints.”
Swann, Harris-Bishop and others said EPA’s desire to reach out to the field offices helps make policy decisions and their eventual implementation easier.
“I see our role as being the advocate for helping to make a policy implementable rather than one that seems to look right or fit right within a law or regulation,” said Rick Rogers, the associate director in EPA Region 3’s Office of State Programs in the Land and Chemicals Division. “We have a little bit more experience in working with individual states or state staff and knowing what they can do, how they can do it and the pressures the states feel in terms of budgetary problems, loss of positions and an inability to fill positions. That all equates to if we come out with a policy that is not implementable, what benefit is it to protecting public health and the environment.”
Rogers said he feels like headquarters is listening and values the input the field office gets from Washington.
“A lot of times we come out with good regulations or policies to be followed but there isn’t enough money to implement them,” he said. “Whether it’s money EPA provides to state agencies or the state agencies which have to get the funding from somewhere (or) whether it’s their own internal budgets or fees collected from regulated entities. The bottom line usually is we have a good set of regs or policies to work with but they are designed to be fully funded, and we typically are not fully funded so a lot of times we are struggling to make ends meet.”
And it’s that kind of challenge — understanding state agency or possible implementation roadblocks &mdash where the regional offices excel.
Rogers said communication that flows to and from the field makes all the difference in whether a program is successful.
“Trying just to understand each other’s point of view and trying to communicate that well has always been a bit difficult,” Rogers said. “I’ve always thought ever since I was first in the program and working on my first regulatory development workgroup, it would be really helpful if we could switch shoes so that we could get the experience and see what it’s like to work inside the Beltway, and experience those differences, those pressures and expectations. And vice-versa: Have folks, who work in our programs in Washington, come out and be in our shoes for awhile. I think that would really help in a better understanding on both sides and a better acceptance or understanding of why we both are asking for what we are asking for.”
Harris-Bishop and Swan agreed with Rogers that both sets of employees would benefit from spending time in each other’s offices.
But with travel money tight and budgets shrinking, Harris-Bishop said Region 9 is relying on webinars as well as video and teleconferences to communicate with their counterparts.
“There is nothing that beats face-to-face interaction,” he said. “So we are able to do rotational assignments where we do get people to go work at headquarters for 3 or 4 or 6 months. That is really beneficial for them and beneficial for the region because then they have more contacts back there, they understand who’s doing what and when you have a question that needs to be answered, they are a great resource.”
Swan said only since he’d been promoted to a senior manager level recently has he got to meet co-workers at headquarters. And he immediately saw the benefits.
“One of the things that would be helpful for me is to just understand how the organization works,” Swan said. “To be completely frank, there is a lot to the organization there in D.C. and I personally sometimes have blind spots in terms of who’s who. There are some names I know and a lot of them are at the staff level or my level as a branch chief. Sometimes I’m not exactly sure how all of the difference pieces move and how they interconnect. That is one of the things I’ve taken on personally to try to figure that out. It’s been helpful to know that the phone call should be made to Mrs. X instead of Mr. Y on a given issue, which makes for more efficiency.”
Despite the challenges, all three EPA regional employees say their experience working with headquarters staff is good.
In his office, Swan said they rely on Washington staff to help put environmental regulations or laws into both a historical and public policy context.
While in San Francisco, Harris-Bishop said headquarters is the central information point for inventive approaches to clean-up brownfields or superfund sites.
“They have a lot of resources in terms of research for like innovative technologies so we have a greener cleanup efforts. We are trying to make sure that — what we are doing in cleaning up a superfund site — we are doing that in a clean manner, using clean diesel technology, renewable technology and just new approaches,” he said. “Headquarters has done a great deal in developing those fact sheets and best practices they disseminate to everyone in the regions to try.”
Rogers does have one request for his counterparts in Washington:
“Not to forget we are here and that we do have perspective on actually why or why not a certain regulation, policy or program will or will not work as well as we hoped,” he said. “I also would say they should continue to rely on regional offices and folks in the field to help deliver that perspective.”