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Organizational Understanding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 'Unfinished Business'

Kelly A. Stevens, Syracuse University

In 1987, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published their Unfinished Business report revealing that EPA experts (career managers and staff) had vastly different opinions on what should be high-risk priorities versus what the agency and public actually prioritized. This meant EPA spent most of their time and resources addressing issues the public viewed as problematic that agency experts did not. Oftentimes, the environmental problems that were high priority to the experts but low priority to the agency mission were emerging environmental issues such as climate change.

This paper applies an organizational framework to understanding the difficulties for EPA to practice rational priority setting, where agency experts contribute to priority setting that does not result in goal conflict between the agency and internal experts. Multiple hypotheses describing organizational barriers to rational priority setting stemming from principle-agent theory, institutionalism and systems theory are developed. According to agency-theory, the presence of goal conflict, information asymmetry and difficulty measuring performance increase control over the agency, which in turn decreases agency discretion. Strong institutionalism at EPA, evident through centralization of the agency and hefty rulemaking procedures, can also impede rational priority setting. According to systems theory, the organization of EPA by function, rather than product, leads to overall lower strategic goal setting and integration. Rational priority setting may reduce conflict between the EPA and its experts while also improving government responsiveness, strategic goal setting and use of limited resources to address climate change.