This study is a bureaupatologic analysis of Washington D.C. Water and Sewer Authority’s (WASA) “Unsafe Drinking Water Case” through James Q. Wilson’s Framework in Bureaucracy.
In 2004, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated that D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) failed to provide safe and clean drinking water to its ratepayers. EPA found the unsafe lead levels of drinking water in 2002 and warned WASA which also had discovered the same problem one year earlier but never disclosed it to the public. By concealing test results, WASA violated the legislation related to drinking water quality. (For more information about the case, please look at the link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A50736-2004Jun17.html) While analyzing WASA case, first bureaupathologies which exist in this case will be determined, then actors working in the agency will be examined through James Q. Wilson’s framework, and finally the suggestions will be developed to prevent the problems.
WASA is governed by a Board of Directors which consists of 11 members, 6 of them appointed by Mayor represents D.C.. A General Manager who carries out daily operations is accountable to Board of Directors. With 1,000 employees, WASA provides drinking water, sewage collection and wastewater treatment in D.C. area.
In Progressive Era, Weber’s bureaucratic model which was institutional reflection of legal-rational authority began to shape American Public Administration. It was believed that “the only way for a modern society to operate effectively” was this bureaucratic model whose main assumptions consist of division of labor, hierarchical order, and impersonal rules (Stillman, p.52). With the impacts of interest groups by iron triangles and issue networks, the competition of constitutional branches for controlling the “bureaucracy that has been delegated vast powers in our Madisonian political system of separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism” causes some unintended consequences while effective and democratic provision of public services are aimed (Kerwin, p.591). These unintended consequences, also known as bureaupathologies, are anticipated side effects of Weberian bureaucratic model.
One of the bureaupathologies detected in this case is goal displacement which occurs when an organization gives more importance to following the right rule than achieving the ultimate goal of an organization (Wilson, 1989). In other words, “instrumental values become terminal values” (Wilson, 1989, p.69). In this case, one of the WASA’s main substantial goals is to provide clean and safe drinking water to its ratepayers. However, instead of fulfilling completely its substantive goals without threatening the health of local people, WASA focused on other formalistic goals which were assumed to be more essential by managers such as delivering high quality service in some areas and expanding its service net. It is obvious that this goal displacement problem is exacerbated by the management attitude. The following statement of the General Manager of WASA, Jerry N. Johnson, can be used to clarify this situation better: “It’s a way to move forward. We need to stop looking in the rearview mirror of who knew what when and start to focus on serving the residents of the District” (Leonnig, 2004, p.1). As it is seen, Johnson wanted to deliver service immediately without discovering the underlying reasons of the problems and finding solutions.
Another bureaupathology in WASA comes from the hierarchical structure of the system. There was a gap in information delivery between operational, managerial, and executive level. Information that travels up the hierarchy is softened and sometimes concealed. For instance “Board members were provided with little information regarding WASA’s lead monitoring efforts and its response to those efforts” (Editorial, p.1). This situation resulted in bounded rationality problem. The rationalities of Board members were bounded by information constraints because they could not get all the information due to lack of communication. Also, their rationalities were bounded because they “did not have enough experience regarding the technical aspects of WASA’s work to ask questions that might have drawn such information out of WASA executives earlier” (Editorial, p.1). For this reasons, Board member did not have the mental capacity and information to make rational decisions.
Another problem in WASA is the misconduct of General Manager Jerry N. Johnson. According to EPA, the agency concealed the results of tests, sent customers limited, vague information about lead levels, and failed to notify homeowners whose water had high lead results. Johnson was bounded by either lack of skills or lack of values. His behavior can be explained in two ways. First, he did not know that higher levels of lead in drinking water causes serious health problems and using chloramine for disinfecting drinking water could increase the lead level. Second, he knew the consequences of his decision but acted in spite of this. Also, he did not share information with his superiors or he misled them who did not have technical expertise in this issue. If the first case is valid, it shows that Johnson was bounded by lack of skills whereas if the second case is valid, then it shows that he was bounded by lack of ethics. Also, the control by EPA was so weak that enough investigations were not carried and thereby, this kind of behavior of Johnson and pervasive culture of misconduct became inevitable in WASA.
According to James Q. Wilson, there are three levels in the organizations and these three levels (executives, managers, and operators) are affected by unique set of factors. Wilson states that executives are responsible for organizational maintenance which means, externally, supplying resources (namely capital, personnel and political support) and coping with the treats posted by rivals, and, internally, developing an agency mission or identity (Wilson, 1989). In WASA case, the agency was challenged by external stakeholders (e.g. media, citizens, EPA, court etc.) after agency’s failure in performance was revealed. Therefore, the autonomy of WASA was weakened by the external actors who wanted the agency to be unsuccessful and wanted to begin to exert external influence over the agency. In order to handle turf problems, Board must achieve a little bit autonomy. The executives must find and maintain the support of key external constituencies in order to make the federal regulation clearer. The executives should strategically act as decision makers “who succeed are those who manage to combine a clear vision of what they want the agency to do with the ability to communicate that vision effectively and to motivate the key civil servants to act on it” (Wilson, 1989, p.213).
According to Wilson, the next level is managers who have a set of considerations: constraints, people, and compliance. When we look at WASA case, we see that managers faced with external pressures, like lawmakers and media, and constraints imposed from outside. There were lots of rules in the system and this situation forced WASA to sacrifice one rule in order to attain another rule. For instance, as Johnson stated “…growing number of water quality rules, which also monitor for bacteria or other contaminations, at times conflict with one another” (Leonnig and Nakamura, 2004, p.3). Therefore, WASA manager had less control over factors of production and less control over goals.
Using Wilson’s characterization of agency types, we can say that WASA fits into the category of craft organization where outcomes are measurable while outputs are not easily measurable (Wilson, 1989). This means that we can measure the results of provision of safe and clean drinking water as an outcome whereas the outputs which are used to come up with these outcomes are hard to measure. From this perspective, we can say that it is very difficult in WASA to evaluate the daily activities of street level officials such as water quality officials. Therefore, manager should analyze the whole process instead of focusing on just the outcomes, should detect malfunctions and dysfunctions, and should bring solutions for the detected problems. Also, manager should know what the critical environmental problems are and how these problems can be dealt with.
According to Wilson, the next level is operators who do the work that justifies the existence of the organization (Wilson, 1989). The circumstances, beliefs, interests, and organizational culture help us to answer the question of why do operators do what they do.
In terms of circumstances, we can say that in WASA case, there is not a clear goal. The goal is providing safe water, thus it is too difficult for operators to define their tasks by reference to this goal. That is to say, the goal of safe water cannot be translated into a clearly defined set of organizational tasks easily. As Wilson points out “When goals are vague, circumstances become important. Chief among those circumstances are the situations with which operators must cope on a daily basis.” (Wilson, 1989, p.36). In WASA case, limited resources for operators and EPA reducing the priority of lead screening might have an affect on the operators’ behaviors. Additionally, “[a]ttitudes (and ideology) will influence how a job is performed if the job is weakly defined – that is, there are few clear rules specifying how it should be done and few strong incentives enforcing those rules” (Wilson, 1989, p.54). In WASA case, learned vulnerabilities of the agency encouraged the attitude of withholding information.
According to Wilson’s framework about interests and agencies, we can say that WASA fits into the category of majoritarian politics where “no important interest group is continuously active” (Wilson, 1989, p.78). WASA provides a service in which the costs and benefits are widely distributed among people. In this category, benefits have a low per-capita value thus, no one organizes to seek them and costs have a low per-capita value thus, no one organizes to avoid them. According to this low-benefit, low-cost ratio, interest groups would likely not organize but in WASA case, the lawmakers and media became active after the investigations of agency and the political environment of WASA changed a lot. Therefore, WASA needs to change its operators’ behaviors in accordance to law requirements.
On the other hand, the behavior of operators in WASA can be explained through organizational culture which encompasses beliefs, interests, and circumstances. In WASA case, there was a culture of withholding information. This culture was also supported by manager. For instance, water quality official, Seema Bhat, was accused of withholding the test results from WASA management. Withholding information from management indicates the lack of values. Maybe she tried to protect her water quality official department. In organizations, it is common that a distinctive culture appears in agency which differs from the dominant culture by its values and interests. In this case, maybe water quality officials constituted a subculture which sought their interests by deforming information. Withholding the test results which indicated higher levels of lead than the acceptable level according to the legislation can show that the officials in that department were not sufficiently qualified.
During the nominations, the professional qualifications of Board members should be taken into account. There should be at least two members who have technical knowledge about the water and sewage area so that they can discover any problem by examining the reports submitted by managers. Also, it would be better if Board has at least one member who is familiar with health issues related to drinking water and sewage systems.
On the other hand, it is apparent that tap water is used as a drinking water among poorest part of the District. Wealthier people prefer supplying drinking water from market by bottled water instead of using WASA’s service. Therefore, quality of drinking water may not be important for high-income areas. However, Board should make decisions considering all parts of the District. For this reason, there should be passive representation in the Board in order to reflect low-income areas.
WASA has a high autonomy which means that it has a “supportive constituency base and a coherent set of tasks that can provide the basis for a strong and widely shared sense of mission” (Wilson, 1989, p.195). Therefore, Board of Directors has a potential to find new areas of operations and by this way, can reach new financial sources. Money is not enough to solve the problems alone but at the same time problems cannot be solved without money. Thus, Board of Directors should take strategic decisions to increase its revenues.
On the other hand, manager should be aware of his constraints and determine the goals in accordance with the mission of WASA. Also, he should ensure the effective communication within the hierarchical levels.
In order to improve the technical capacity of the operative level personnel, motivation tools such as additional trainings and incentives should be applied. If necessary, the professional mixed can be altered and more personnel from different backgrounds can be hired. Besides technical capacity, strong values should be promoted in order to make these personnel be aware of the importance of their services over citizens.
Since changing culture takes a long time, firstly ease and quick things such as the behavior of the personnel or the routines in the workplace should be altered. Also, altering organizational routines should not be neglected while changing structural issues and procedures. Manager should generate enthusiasm among operators about taking the new culture seriously. Therefore, they should apply incentives, flexible working hours etc. Also, they should apply nonmaterial rewards like “a sense of duty and purpose, the status that derives from individual recognition and personal power, and the associational benefits that come from being part of an organization (or a small group within that organization) that is highly regarded by its members or by society at large” (Wilson, 1989, p.157-158).
 Wilson James, Q. (1989). Bureaucracy: What government agencies do and why they do it.