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January 2008

January 31, 2008

Two Lists

Monday the Mobil Travel Guide released its 2008 list of five-star restaurantsLink to EPA's External Link Disclaimer. Five-star restaurants presumedly provide flawless food and service in an exquisite setting. They are the tops. You can't do any better than five-stars.

There is one five-star restaurant near where I live: The Inn at Little WashingtonLink to EPA's External Link Disclaimer. I heard about it many years ago and wondered why anyone would pay hundreds of dollars for one meal. Not long ago, to celebrate our anniversary, my wife and I decided to find out.

Before I continue, there is another list that came out today. The Office of Management and Budget released its ratings of how well federal agencies are implementing five management initiatives. Each agency is scored as being ‘green' (successful), ‘yellow' (mixed bag), or ‘red' (“don't make me pull this car over”) on each initiative. Like five-stars, you can't do any better than five-greens. And they are tough to get. The latest ratings only give three of 26 federal agencies five-greens. 

One of those three was the Environmental Protection Agency.


It's a first for us and we should be proud. Similar to the President's Quality Award we won in December, it's taken many years to get here. We got our first green (for financial management) in 2003 and have accumulated an additional green every year since then.  More importantly we've kept our greens despite increasingly tough expectations. (In fact, we lost and had to regain our green in information technology twice.) Every office and every employee has been affected from changing the way we assess personnel to how we issue regulations.

A rating is just that: a rating. The rating doesn't make us more effective or save us money or make us a stronger Agency. But it validates something I feel. We continue to improve how we operate. We are among the best in government. We should be proud.

We should also be wary.

I expected much from the Inn at Little Washington and they still surprised me. The service was attentive but unobtrusive. The dining area was elegant yet comfortable. And the food . . . sorry Mom, but it was among the best meals I've had in my life. The kicker was the sous-chef who gave us a tour of the kitchen. I mentioned to him that Zagat had just rated them the best restaurant in the United States. “We don't pay much attention to that. We are here to do one thing, overwhelm people's impossible expectations. If we do that, the ratings will come. The day we start worrying about the ratings is the day we start slipping.”

January 29, 2008

Bring Bad News Early

Photo of Amy Winehouse Amy Winehouse drives me nuts. Winehouse is a 24 year-old singer/songwriter who recently burst onto the music scene and could garner as many as six Grammys next month. Many compare her dusky soulful voice to Sara Vaughn. Her lyrics are sharp and clever. Prince wants to sing with her. Snoop Dogg says she's another James Brown. She is an incredibly skilled person. She is also incredibly self-destructive.

Her life is a wreck. One could blame her recently incarcerated husband or her outspoken parents or alcohol or the hounding paparazzi but habitual drug use seems to be at the center of a multitude of troubles. She's wandered in and out of rehab, canceled tours, had run-ins with the law, and gotten booed at concerts. As quickly as she leapt on to the world stage, she seems to be sinking into ruin.

Incredible talent, going to waste.

Here's the fascinating question: would a ‘clean' Amy Winehouse still be Amy Winehouse? What if someone had grabbed her when she was still impressionable and sent her down a different, cleaner, path? What if we had the talent without the drugs? 

Some say we wouldn't want that. Amy's artistry is transcendent because of her hardships.  Her reality energizes her talent. Janis Joplin without heroin would have just been another singer.

I can't go there. There is a general rule in performance measurement that applies here: always bring bad news early. One of the reasons EPA tries to measure things on a quarterly basis is so we can spot where problems are developing and correct them before they get big.  Sound mundane? It's not. Folks don't like reporting bad news. We have a natural tendency to avoid information that might make us look bad, or we ignore it once we get it or we explain it away or rely on wishful thinking.

A good management system not only forces people to consider how they are doing but rewards the early identification of problems. Bring bad news early. That means if you think your kid is using drugs the response should not be, “Well, she'll probably grow out of it” or “At least it will improve her music.”

Regardless of what great work we may or may not enjoy because of Amy Winehouse's harsh reality, the current situation can't be good for Amy Winehouse.

January 24, 2008

IT World

I had a progress meeting with the office that is responsible for information technology last week. They are called the Office of Environmental Information. Overall, things are going very well there. Here are two highlights:

  • In 2007 well over 70% of the Toxic Release Inventory reports submitted to us were received electronically through our central data exchange. That is the highest level ever. This improves both the accuracy and timeliness of the information EPA provides the public regarding the release or treatment of pollution. Last year we issued our annual report rolling up this information on March 22. That was the earliest this information has ever been released and a full two months faster than where we were in 2005. We think we can be even faster this year.
  • We had a goal of having over 40 percent of all federal rules being available electronically to the public via Regulations.gov by the end of 2007. (Regulations.gov is run by EPA on behalf of the federal government.) We blew that goal away (see graph). Just over 80 percent of all rules are now available.Thank you to the Department of Transportation, in particular, for coming on board late last year! If you are a federal regulation geek, this site is now a ‘must visit.'

graph showing percent of federal rules, showing increases from 20% in first quarter of 2006 doubled by third quarter 2007 with actuals of 80% On the other side of the coin, we didn't hit our goal of having 100 percent of EPA's laptops encrypted by 2008. In the effort to encrypt all our laptops we found some non-standard computers. (Some ‘bad apples' as it were.) The non-standard laptops are being brought into line by putting other types of security controls in place.

January 22, 2008

Google Goggles

Goggles_2 I once borrowed a friend's goggles to go snorkeling. I got into the water and couldn't see much of anything. It was all fuzzy. Turns out he forgot to tell me they were prescription goggles. Sometimes, however, you see more, not less, when you look through someone else's goggles.

There are moments, late at night, when I wonder if I'm spending my time working on the right things. Are measures, goals, quarterly reports, best practices, and regular management meetings important to making EPA a more effective agency?

I was lucky enough to be in a group that met with the President and CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, last week. Eric has a reputation as a superlative manager. The group wanted to know how he saw things at Google and whether his experience could help in how we run federal agencies. Here are a few things that he said he learned are necessary if you want to successfully run a large organization, public or private.

You need to be able to answer a basic question: do you know what people are doing?

You need to have regular operational reviews. Quarterly meetings are good. You must have some measures that are the basis for these reviews.

At Google we set goals so that there is about a 70 percent chance of achieving them. If you are achieving close to 100 percent of your goals or less than 50 percent of your goals, you need to take a closer look at your goals.

In everything we do, we try and capture and promote best practices.

Looking through Eric's goggles made things clearer for me. Yeah, I'm spending my time on the right stuff.

January 17, 2008

It Takes Two

In 1914 Ernest Shackleton set out from England to be the first man to cross Antarctica. His ship never made land. Crushed by ice, it sank. The subsequent nine-month odyssey as Shackleton and his crew tried to save themselves is, I believe, the most spectacular journey in modern times. Many people know Shackleton's story. Few know the story of Aeneas Mackintosh (see picture). 

Photo of Aeneas Mackintosh Shackleton's plan, had he landed, was to take enough provisions to cross the South Pole.  After that he would rely on finding food depots in the snow -- food depots laid down by Captain Mackintosh. In 1915 and early 1916, ignorant of Shackleton's dire situation on the other side of Antarctica, Mackintosh and five others marched 1000 brutal miles laying out food supplies. They got the work done, but, in the process, Mackintosh and two others lost their lives. Three souls and a ton of misery to feed an expedition that never came. It was an unhappy lesson that in some situations success only happens if everyone does their part.

I had a progress meeting with the EPA Regional Administrators in the Northeast this week.  One of the priorities in the Northeast is to reduce air pollution (and save fuel) by eliminating unnecessary engine idling. In this regard, there are some really good things happening in New England (EPA's Region 1). The Region has far more idle reduction projects going on compared to other regions and the number of projects completed in 2007 (94) is almost double the number from the year before (48). How are they doing this?

The success seems to come from a ‘one -- two' punch. Four of the New England states have anti-idling regulations in place and two of these states, Connecticut and Massachusetts, include these rules in their state air quality plans. This gives EPA the authority to enforce anti-idling regulations in those states.   

Anti Idling AdIt's a great example of how states and EPA work together to improve the environment. Yet we both have to do our job to make it work. States take action setting standards and implementing requirements while EPA helps states with enforcement and technical assistance - see Model State Idling Law (PDF) (15 pages, 1 MB, get PDF reader).

After his death, despite the lack of overall success, Captain Mackintosh was honored by having a mountain named after him. Nice, but I like EPA's legacy of successful teamwork better: a cleaner environment.

January 15, 2008

MLK '08

Last week I gave welcoming remarks at EPA's Martin Luther King, Jr. Observance.  Some folks suggested I post them. Here you go.

Good morning, thank you all for joining us today as we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In particular, I welcome our distinguished guest speaker, Reverend Clifton Davis. Reverend Davis has been on television, in the movies, and on Broadway.

Of those three media, I must admit Broadway is my favorite. Two weeks ago I was lucky enough to see the musical Wicked on Broadway. It's a very good show. It's a prequel to the Wizard of Oz story. It describes what happened before Dorothy arrives in Oz. 

One reason it's so good is it's disorienting. I'm not going to ruin the show if you haven't seen it but I will say all the folks you thought were the good guys are the bad guys and all the folks you thought were the bad guys are the good guys. If you've seen the Wizard of Oz a gazillion times, it takes a while to get your head around this. What you thought was right, isn't right. What you thought was wrong, isn't wrong. The hero of the story, at great cost to herself, shows everyone the truth.

But that's just a Broadway show. That sort of thing never happens in real life. In what kind of world is right wrong and wrong right? And in what sort of situation is someone willing to give their life to setting the world straight and educating the rest of us.

Martin Luther King, Jr. peeled back the façade that made wrong look right and showed people the ugliness that was underneath. His story, and the sacrifice he made, is fact, not fiction. He is a bona fide hero. He instilled the ideal that no matter what kind of people we are as individuals, we are all Americans with the same rights and responsibilities. The right to determine our own lives and the responsibility to make sure others enjoy that right as well.

As EPA employees we have a responsibility to help clean up the air, water, and land for everyone – all our citizens. That is a responsibility we share. As Americans we also share the responsibility of toleration and ensuring equality for all people. That's not just something that happens on its own. We have to step up to it every day. 

In the words of Dr. King, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism, or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” That's why this year, on January 21st, when offices across the country close, I encourage you to make the holiday created in his memory a day on, not a day off. For instance, you can honor Dr. King and his dream of building a better America by spending the day taking part in a service project in your community.

Whether it's volunteering to feed the hungry, cleaning-up a local park, or helping a neighbor in need . . . together we can continue building the community he imagined. We can continue the story he started. A story that isn't fiction and isn't finished and profoundly affects the world we live in.   

Thank you, and enjoy today's program.

January 10, 2008

My Farewell

At my request, EPA's Assistant and Regional Administrators have been sending me their goals for 2008. Here are my goals for 2008  in the form of my farewell speech. No, I'm not leaving soon.

Deputy Administrator's Farewell Speech January 19, 2009

A teacher once asked her third grade class if any of the students had heard of Julius Caesar. “Yes,” said one girl in the back of the classroom. “What do you know about him?” the teacher asked. “Well, I know he lived a long time ago and he was really important.” “Anything else?” the teacher prodded. “Yeah, he gave really long speeches . . . and they killed him.”


I don't intend to talk for long.

For over three years I've been in charge of making EPA run better. I think it's the best job I'll ever have. It's tough to say ‘goodbye.'

It's been an exciting 42 months. First we set up a system for governing at the ‘corporate' level by creating quarterly management reports and meetings. Building off this I believe we have become the best-managed Agency in the Cabinet. Look at what we did in 2008 alone. We were:

  • the second Agency to achieve, and keep, the highest possible score on the President's Management Agenda;
  • the only Agency to create a new organization, the Program Analysis Division, whose full-time job is to look for ways to improve operations and outcomes.
  • one of a few agencies to systematically capture, disseminate, and validate best practices;
  • the first Agency to internally broadcast, live, regular senior management progress meetings;
  • the only Agency I know of to have our senior career managers regularly meet to make decisions regarding improving our operations and management systems;
  • and the first federal Agency to win the President's Quality Award for overall management back-to-back.

Part of this success is due to the fact we used measures to manage rather than just using them to report. Since 2005 we've reduced the number of measures by 20 percent making those that remain more vital. In 2008:

  • EPA, for the first time, corralled all our performance measures into one central repository;
  • all EPA offices were able to access all our measures electronically and some offices were able to create tailored electronic dashboards; and
  • managers were not slaves to measures but constantly asked the key question, “What are the outcomes we are really trying to achieve?”

We accomplished these things because hundreds of people at this Agency understand that when EPA works better, public health and the environment improve faster. Management initiatives are gobbledygook unless they lead to cleaner air, water, and/or land. It's that simple.

I'll miss working on EPA's operations and on EPA's mission. But most of all, I'll miss working with people who get up every morning, look themselves in the mirror and ask, “How can I improve what we do today?”

Thanks and farewell.

January 08, 2008

Guest Blog: My Favorite Green Things

Kristy Miller works in EPA's Air and Radiation Office.

Photo of Kristi Miller

This Holiday season driving to the Midwest in my jam-packed car, I had the radio tuned to Dr. Mehmet Oz (you know him; he's Oprah's favorite doctor in green scrubs). Dr. Oz is fast becoming my favorite doc too. I tipped my hat when I heard him tell America that radon in homes is a leading cause of lung cancer and it's easy to get your home tested and fixed for this invisible radioactive gas that's a silent killer. (I couldn't have scripted him any better myself!)

It so happened that my car was packed with some of “my favorite things” to give away to family and friends-- radon test kits. January is National Radon Action Month and my friends are protecting their families using their newly-gifted test kits.

Radon in homes is everyone's equal opportunity environmental health risk. Regardless of what type of home you live in, new or old, basement or not, it could have high radon; and, regardless of where you live it's been found in every state. EPA estimates one in 15 homes will have a high level. The only way to determine if your home has high radon is to test for it; the good news is any home can be “fixed” relatively easily.   

Radon seeps into homes undetected from underground soil gases produced by decaying uranium inside the earth. About 20 years ago we learned that homes can act like a plastic bag trapping unhealthy radon levels inside.

In 1998 Harvard's School of Public HealthLink to EPA's External Link Disclaimer ranked breathing indoor radon as the highest preventable home risk contributing to premature death. The experts estimate radon causes 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year. Without any federal mandates, EPA's role is to keep this silent environmental health risk in front of Americans who might otherwise "forget about it".   

So how's EPA doing against this radioactive threat? 

Starting from a baseline of zero public awareness 20 years ago, here's the estimated progress: 

• 75% of Americans have heard of radon;
• 20% of homes have been tested;
• One million high homes have been fixed;
• Some 1.5 million new homes built with radon-resistant features.

Image of Radon Test Announcement

So far, we've saved about 6,000 lives—our goal is to double that, saving 12,000 lives, by 2012. 

The ultimate way to beat this cancer risk is to build new homes with radon-resistant features. New for 2008, EPA has a building green media campaign with Fuad Reveiz Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer, a member of the National Association of Home BuildersLink to EPA's External Link Disclaimer. Fuad says building new homes radon-resistant is a win-win because it's a simple and cost-effective way to offer the benefit of a healthier home. 

A radon test kit is the perfect gift for every family and for every occasion. (I betcha Oprah will have radon test kits on her “favorite things” list soon too!)

Learn more at  www.epa.gov/radon  or call 1-800-SOS-RADON

January 03, 2008

MacGyver, Meet Lopez

I was never a big fan of the television series "MacGyver" which ran through the late 80s into the early 90s, but I must give it credit for creating the verb ‘to MacGyver.'

If you never saw this program, Angus MacGyver, played by fellow Minneapolitan Richard Dean Anderson, was a secret agent with a knack for using common objects such as ball point pens, duct tape, and his ever-present Swiss Army knife, to invent his way out of tight situations. The solutions, or ‘MacGyvers', were really the result of his ability to apply scientific principles to problems. For instance, I recall he fixed a leak of sulfuric acid with chocolate, pointing out that the disaccharides in the chocolate would react with the acid to form a thick gummy plug. More typically, I also recall he once made a bomb out of a car battery, an aluminum can, an exhaust pipe, and pantyhose.

Photo of homemade air monitorHere's one MacGyver never thought of:  Flip a tomato plant cage upside down and attach it to the top of another tomato plant cage with bailing wire.  On top of this, clip a personal air quality monitoring badge (a disc workers clip on their shirt or jacket) and, inverted, a disposable turkey roasting pan (to protect the badge from sun and rain).  Finally, tie down the whole assembly with twine attached to five cinderblocks.  And there you have it: an air toxics monitor adequate for figuring out the air quality around where people live (see photo).  Total cost about $40.

Photo of Jose Lopez installing a home made air monitor Congratulations to the Environmental Department of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Texas for coming up with this ‘MacGyver,' which EPA helped fund. I understand it was the invention of Mr. Jose Lopez (shown in the picture).  Given MacGyver was fiction while Mr. Lopez is real, perhaps we should really be calling such innovations ‘Lopezs' and when someone comes up with such an invention that means they ‘Lopezed it.'

Got a problem? Open up your brain and ‘Lopez it.'