Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Reconsidering Accountability for Environmental Inspectors: Trading "Compliance by Computer" for Relationship Building

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Reconsidering Accountability for Environmental Inspectors: Trading "Compliance by Computer" for Relationship Building

Article excerpt

Discussions of accountability have permeated the field of public administration for some time and seem to occupy our collective conscious when it comes to evaluating the performance of civil servants and agencies alike. Of particular importance in this conversation is the role of street-level bureaucrats, or front-line workers. Although these crucial civil servants are increasingly considered--particularly with regards to accountability (c.f. Hupe and Hill 2007; Pollitt 2003; Day and Klein 1987)--key segments of the front-line worker population continue to be neglected. Most specifically, front-line workers in the environmental policy arena play a significant, yet routinely overlooked, role in protecting and ensuring the quality of the natural environment (there are a few exceptions, however, c.f. Scheberle 2004; Pautz 2009). Environmental inspectors are those civil servants who work predominantly at the state level and interact with the regulated community to ensure compliance with environmental laws. As with all categories of civil servants, it is suspected that environmental inspectors face competing definitions of accountability that can adversely impact performance and achievement of policy goals. Perhaps one of the most important ways to gain insight about the types of accountability these front-line regulators encounter is to ask the regulators themselves.

Environmental inspectors in Virginia and Ohio were interviewed to determine their perceptions on interacting with the regulated community and how accountability is manifested. The results of 34 interviews and subsequent qualitative data analysis provide initial insights into the types of accountability these inspectors would prefer and demonstrate that "compliance by computer" occurs from a seemingly overreliance on output rather than outcome measures. Inspectors in this study would prefer to be in the field interacting with the regulated community and building relationships with them to achieve the best possible environmental outcomes. Instead, the inherent tensions of pursuing conflicting views of accountability appear to leave these inspectors stuck in the office processing paperwork rather than working with their counterparts in the regulated community to achieve environmental goals. Understanding inspectors' views on accountability are particularly relevant in the environmental policy arena as more alternative policy tools are being embraced that embody fewer attributes of traditional command and control policies.

To investigate the perceptions of inspectors and their work, this exploratory research begins by contextualizing the interviews with a brief look at conceptualizations of accountability and their applicability to the work of regulators. Then the discussion shifts to a more focused consideration of environmental inspectors themselves and why conversations with inspectors directly are long overdue. With this background, the findings from the nearly three dozen interviews are examined before the paper concludes with a look at the implications of shifting from bureaucratic to professional accountability for environmental inspectors.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Before exploring the remarks of nearly three dozen environmental inspectors, first we must examine accountability in the context of these front-line regulators. Accountability, despite its ubiquity in public administration (c.f. Frederickson 2007), does not have a standard, widely accepted definition (c.f. Koppell 2005). Romzek (2000) defines accountability as the process of holding someone answerable for performance. There is extensive discussion regarding the dimensions and types of accountability (c.f. Romzek & Dubnick 1987; Romzek 2000; Behn 2001; Gormley & Balla 2004; Koppell 2005) and Frederickson (2007), among others, notes the dominance of accountability discussions in public administration and how much of those discussions focus on accountability as "little more than measures of organizational performance" (11). …

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