Flint, Lead and Public Administration’s Failure

By Sarah Weakley (Staff Writer)

This is a story of public administration gone horribly, horribly wrong in Flint, Michigan.

In April 2013 the Flint City Council voted to join a regional water network that would take its water directly from Lake Huron rather than through the city of Detroit, a change expected save the city millions each year. This was a sound idea for a city with crippling debt (with over $1.1 billion in unfunded pension costs[1]) that had been under emergency management since 2011. Because the new project would not be complete until 2017, the emergency manager of Flint chose to use the Flint River for the city’s water rather than negotiating a short-term contract with Detroit, and Flint would treat the water itself. All seemed well in April 2014.

Shortly thereafter, the city began receiving complaints from citizens about brown, foamy, and smelly water – complaints rebuffed by officials as merely ‘aesthetic’ issues. This horrendous water quality came about because the city did not treat the water with the necessary anti-corrosive agent as it travelled through the city’s decades-old pipes (a mistake identified months later by the Department for Environmental Quality, DEQ). In effect, residents were drinking the old, rusty pipes the water ran through, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned that the city’s new source of water was exposing the residents to lead; a warning the DEQ ignored. Throughout 2015 officials insisted the water was safe to drink, and that there were no elevated levels of lead – despite multiple independent researchers and a paediatrician finding dangerous lead levels in children’s blood [2].

It was only in October 2015 – over 18 months after the first complaints from residents, and after thousands had been exposed – when state officials confirmed lead in the water. All told, 10 residents died of Legionnaire’s Disease, and thousands of children and citizens have been subjected to dangerous levels of lead, which has particularly detrimental and lasting effects on the physical and behavioural health of exposed children. In January 2016, a federal emergency was declared; residents and schoolchildren have had to resort to drinking donated bottled water.

‘Running government like a business’ and the crisis in Flint

When I pored over articles on Flint, one of the first things that came to mind was public administration failure, brought on in my opinion partially because Michigan chose to ‘run government like a business’. This idea is from the New Public Management (NPM) school of thought in public administration[3], which promotes the expansion of market-driven concepts in public administration with ‘an emphasis on…cost-cutting and production management concepts taken from the private sector’. Ideally, implementing these concepts makes government ‘trim and lean, exhibiting competitive behaviors [sic], and giving greater attention to the needs of “customers” [as opposed to citizens]’[4].

The increased use of government contractors, pay-for-performance schemes, and emergency manager positions in governments are examples of this school of thought’s impact on public institutions. New Public Service[5] emerged in response to New Public Management’s rising popularity in the field and put ‘explicit consideration of democratic values and citizenship by public administrators’ as its defining value. However, NPM still retains ‘much of its hold on the day-to-day work of public administration practitioners’[6]. In the case of Flint’s water crisis, I argue that some of the most egregious failures align with the implementation of NPM principles.

Public Administrator as CEO

For the emergency manager(s) of Flint over the period of this crisis, their unchecked power is reminiscent of a CEO with little oversight – power wilfully given by lawmakers who also believe in smaller, business-like government. For cities deemed ‘in crisis’, emergency managers are appointed by the governor to take nearly all means necessary to right the budgetary ship. The ‘means’ of the emergency manager include ‘the power to renegotiate contracts, liquidate assets, suspend local government [and] unilaterally draft policy’[7].

By 2014, the decision to cut costs by using the Flint River was just one in a string of austerity decisions made by emergency managers since 2011. This initial decision to switch to the Flint River, I should note, was not taken unilaterally. But the decisions to veto important votes by the city council to ‘do all things necessary to return to Detroit water’ in early 2015, was. Perhaps the crisis escalated because the emergency manager believed other officials when they said the water was safe, or because he didn’t want to admit to his failure. Regardless of motive, the power of the emergency manager (and the inability to vote one out of office) left Flint citizens with no real control over local government from 2011 to 2015.

Muddled Accountability

One of the main criticisms of NPM is that, because these emergency managers and other public administrators are ‘free from day to day democratic oversight’[8], accountability is muddled. The demands for accountability are being raised in Flint as we speak, with the nation looking towards the governor’s office, the emergency managers, and the DEQ as the primary targets for blame. While I believe these are the right organisations on which to place the blame now, not one of them seemed to consider themselves accountable to Flint residents during the crisis. For Governor Synder, it was a city issue; for the emergency manager, he seemed to act accountable only to his austerity directive from the Governor; and for the DEQ, their tests and treatment measures continued to confirm their ideas that the water was safe[9]. The citizens had no recourse at the ballot box for these officials, and so were left with a group of unelected administrators who continually lied and ignored them, and who seemed to be accountable to no one.

Citizens as Consumers

Perhaps the most grating aspect of NPM reflected in this crisis is the idea of citizens as consumers. Under this management, government is flexible and responds to the needs of consumers (citizens) because they are paying for a commodity – and so the actions of their CEO are necessary to respond to customer needs and market forces. However, water is not a commodity and citizens are not like consumers. If a t-shirt (commodity) doesn’t fit, you can return it or refuse to pay for it (like a customer). But you cannot live without water. A government that is responsible for the delivery of a product like water, therefore, cannot reasonably act like a business because citizens of Flint cannot voluntarily decide to purchase water. And even though the emergency manager (CEO) of Flint chose to continue using a water source that was poisoning them, Flint residents are still paying $100 to $200 a month for it[10]. These ‘customers’ were sold an image by the government that the water was safe to drink for over a year – a false advertisement with dire consequences.

It will take months for officials and the Department of Justice to determine who is truly at fault for this crisis (since the time of this writing I’m sure more details have emerged). But, can’t part of the blame be on those at all levels of government who created a culture of administration that allowed this crisis to flourish? Even in cities deemed in ‘crisis’ (which are generally poor and majority black cities in the United States), ‘experts’ with unchecked power cannot simply be given the reigns to a city in the name of business-like efficiency, tossing aside citizen’s rights, home rule, and democratic processes.

[1] Nelson, Libby. (2015) ‘Flint, Michigan tried to save money on water. Now its children have lead poisoning.’ Updated 19 January 2016. http://www.vox.com/2015/12/15/10237054/flint-lead-poisoning

[2] A full timeline of Flint’s water crisis to January 18, 2016 can be found here: http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/flint-water-crisis/bad-decisions-broken-promises-timeline-flint-water-crisis-n499641. Other sources of timeline details not cited elsewhere found via Amy Davidson in The New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/news/amy-davidson/the-contempt-that-poisoned-flints-water); Evan Osnos in The New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-crisis-in-flint-goes-deeper-than-the-water). 

[3] New Public Management was introduced by Osborne and Gaebler (1992) in Reinventing Government.

[4] Box, Richard. 1999. ‘Running Government like a Business: Implications for Public Administration Theory and Practice’. American Review of Public Administration 29(1): 19-43.

[5] New Public Service was introduced by Denhardt and Denhardt (2000) ‘The New Public Service: Serving rather than Steering’ Public Administration Review 60(6):549-59 and the 2011 book New Public Service:Serving Not Steering. Notable commentary on New Public Service also in Perry, J (2007) ‘Democracy and the New Public Service’ The American Review of Public Administration 37(1):3-16.

[6] Denhardt, J and Denhardt, R. (2015) ‘New Public Service Revisited’. Public Administration Review 25 (5): 664-672.

[7] Coyne, C. ‘Flint’s Water Crisis: what the national media got wrong’ Vox 20 January 2016 http://www.vox.com/2016/1/20/10789810/flint-michigan-water-crisis/in/10563335

[8] Box, R.

[9] It was only admitted months later by DEQ that proper protocol for testing water quality for lead and other toxins was not followed for a city of Flint’s size.

[10] Bliss, L. ‘Flint has been looking at water all wrong’. CityLab, 20 January 2016. Accessed via: http://www.citylab.com/politics/2016/01/flint-water-crisis-lead-michigan/424728/