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

PAQ, Vol. 35 No. 3, (2011)

Demands for government accountability extend into all the aspects of government service and the environmental realm is no different. Environmental inspectors - the front-line workers in environmental protection agencies – are among the many civil servants who face demands for accountability. Unfortunately, although accountability is desirable normatively speaking, in practice it is not so simple. Accountability for environmental inspectors frequently involves measures such as the number of inspections completed, the efficiency of data entry in agency databases, and the turnaround time on inspection reports. Such measures leave environmental inspectors, who ideally want - and practically need - to be in the field, stuck in the office ensuring “compliance by computer;” extensive interviews with environmental inspectors in Virginia and Ohio substantiate these assertions. Yet inspectors desire (along with their supervisors) positive and cooperative relationships with the regulated community. Overwhelming majorities of inspectors in Virginia and Ohio see good relationships as necessary for the success of environmental regulation. The sentiments of inspectors are echoed in much of the accountability literature that questions the tendency to embrace various performance measures over the importance of dialogue and an emphasis on discretion. This paper argues that “compliance by computer” is detrimental to the existing environmental regulatory system and maintains that accountability should be sought by building positive relationships between inspectors and the regulated community.

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