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Strengthening Transparency and Accountability at EPA

Options for Enhancing the Environmental Protection Agency's Culture for Science, Evidence, and Data

Executive Summary

As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, public health and environmental conditions in the United States are vastly improved because of the agency’s efforts. Preparing for the next 50 years will require renewed innovation, application of program evaluation, and attention to efficiencies that collectively maximize accountability and transparency for the agency’s activities.

In November 2019, the Bipartisan Policy Center published the report Meaningful Transparency at EPA, which provides an overview of the suite of policies that relate to transparency, open science, and data use at EPA. The report presented a conceptual framework to consider how EPA might advance evidence-based policymaking in the future. It included descriptions of how EPA can apply scientifically- and socially-relevant transparency through information sharing and use over the next 50 years.
This report presents options that represent a range of ideas to strengthen the agency’s learning culture and increase public trust in EPA information, among other topics. This is largely accomplished with options for making EPA data accessible and useful to the American public, while also ensuring the best available science is accessible and used for decision-making. The options are organized into four groups:

  • Strengthen EPA’s Learning Culture options embody a continuous improvement ethos throughout the agency.
  • Improve EPA’s Data Governance and Management options ensure EPA-collected information is used to benefit agency decisions.
  • Enhance EPA’s Policy Analysis and Evaluation Functions options provide strategies for rigorously studying policy implementation and making reasonable prospective assumptions for future actions.
  • Bolster Public Trust and Enrich EPA Communication options promote credibility with the American public that the best available science is considered and used by the agency.

The options in this report are intentionally not presented as recommendations; this is not designed as a consensus report from experts. Instead the options are intended to initiate a dialogue about how EPA may further improve successful implementation of critical environmental laws by creating additional opportunities for accountability and transparency. EPA officials, Congress, and the American public must all identify and support a meaningful strategy that promotes the best available science to be accessible and used in decision-making processes. This report offers an initial framing for those discussions and considerations.

EPA has a long history of promoting scientific discovery and applying cutting-edge insights to decision-making. However, EPA must continue to implement innovations to ensure the best available science is meaningfully applied to fulfill the agency’s mission. These endeavors should be paired with continued efforts to improve transparency and accountability for the American public.

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The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 ushered in tremendous reforms for environmental and public health protections in the United States. The world was a different place when EPA was established. Environmental harms were rampant and directly observable, air quality was poor, water quality was hazardous, and the magnitude of the ecological risks facing the country was largely unknown.

While there is still vast room for improvement, as EPA enters its 50th year, environmental quality in the United States is substantially improved. Much of the change to the country’s environment and public health is a testament to the bipartisan dedication from political leaders through the years. These leaders recognized where the country was ill- or under-equipped to address environmental and health harms, then provided the needed authority and resources. These problems were then researched and addressed through the expertise of the civil servants, scientists, and stakeholders, who advised EPA’s regulatory efforts over the past half century. Countless successes led to cleaner air and water, fewer hazardous waste spills, and safer emissions from modern industrial facilities.

However, the world in 1970 was unaware of the technological and scientific capabilities that would exist in 2020. Indeed, the internet, smart phones, or even GPS did not exist 50 years ago. Data science, the Python programming language, and widely available free statistical coding software were decades from their inception. The computational toxicology systems used for screening potential endocrine disruptors could not have been fathomed. The requirements for public disclosure of information on emissions and potential harms involved limited open data, not the vast data now available at any time of day or night for the entire country.

While EPA adopted these innovations over the past five decades, has EPA fully applied modern capabilities to maximize transparency and accountability? Has EPA successfully applied innovative approaches, emerging disciplines, and new technologies to ensure the best available science and evidence is used for decision-making? Few government agencies fully capitalized on strategies for enhancing transparency and accountability in the 21st century, including how to seek input from stakeholders and experts relevant to government decisions amid an ever-growing body of evidence and evolving technologies.

As technology advances, transparency efforts in government must necessarily evolve in ways that meet the expectations of the American public and elected leaders. The report Meaningful Transparency at EPA provides an overview of the suite of policies that relate to transparency, open science, and data use at EPA, including how EPA goes about making the information used in agency decision-making available to the American public today.1 It includes a conceptual framework to consider how various EPA and government-wide policies align with the goals of evidence-based policymaking, specifically within the context of describing to what extent and for what purpose EPA makes information accessible and useful to the American public.

The Meaningful Transparency at EPA report offers several themes for EPA to consider in pursuing both scientifically- and socially-relevant transparency through information sharing and use over the next 50 years. The themes include focus on enabling public interpretation of complex information as well as maintaining public trust in EPA information. This report presents options where these themes tend to emerge as ideas that strengthen the agency’s learning culture, as well as those that are explicitly focused on public trust and communication. Other themes focus on incentivizing unparalleled transparency and articulating science-policy considerations. The concepts are interwoven throughout the options that seek to make more information about the environment or public health accessible to benefit oversight and accountability.

Even with a conceptual model and themes for next steps, much more work is needed. This work is to adopt the model for modern technologies and contemporaneous expectations in society for using transparent information and processes to promote accountability in decision-making and operations, thereby fostering public trust in government. How should EPA go about making its data accessible and useful to the American public and ensuring that the best available science is accessible and used for decision-making? This report does not seek to directly answer the question as an absolute solution set or recommendations for action. Instead, this report offers discrete options to apply the conceptual model at EPA in 2020 and beyond, while being mindful that technology and science will continue to advance in coming years as the nature of the problems being addressed also evolves. The options are presented in four groups that are in no particular order: strengthening EPA’s learning culture, improving data governance and management, enhancing policy analysis and evaluation, and bolstering public trust and communication.

Importantly, the options presented may not be unanimously agreed to by all stakeholders, as they will be affected by political viability, resource constraints, sequential ordering, and even other alternatives not reflected in this report. These options are intended to initiate further dialogue among Congress, EPA, and stakeholders about how the agency can most effectively fulfill its mission in the 21st century.

Finally, the options are intended to amplify existing authorities, including those provided by the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-435) and the Federal Data Strategy for 2019-2029.2 For these activities, the options present more specific suggestions that apply directly to EPA from government-wide initiatives, including by identifying opportunities to leverage the initiatives for reasonable progress at EPA. Because the options focus on areas for improvement, this report should not be interpreted as suggesting there are not areas where EPA performs well. Indeed, there are many. However, the options highlight unique, timely opportunities for improvement.

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