Will We Learn the Right Lessons from Flint?

Inquiries triggered by the Flint, Michigan water crisis have turned up several unpleasant reminders that ideology is no substitute for managerial competence or public ethics.

The most offensive recent discovery was evidence that—at the same time state officials were assuring Flint residents that their water was safe—they were providing clean water to state workers. As the Detroit Free Press reports,

In January of 2015, when state officials were telling worried Flint residents their water was safe to drink, they also were arranging for coolers of purified water in Flint’s State Office Building so employees wouldn’t have to drink from the taps, according to state government e-mails released Thursday by the liberal group Progress Michigan.

A Jan. 7, 2015, notice from the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which oversees state office buildings, references a notice about a violation of drinking water standards that had recently been sent out by the City of Flint.

“While the City of Flint states that corrective actions are not necessary, DTMB is in the process of providing a water cooler on each occupied floor, positioned near the water fountain, so you can choose which water to drink,” said the notice.

Needless to say, residents of Flint did not get a similar choice.

Then there’s this…

In The Public Interest is a think-tank monitoring privatization in the U.S. The organization warns the public when poorly-conceived public-private “partnerships” threaten to enrich private contractors without serving the public interest, or when such arrangements lack sufficient oversight or accountability. According to its recent newsletter,

In February 2015, almost a full year before the news of widespread lead poisoning gained headlines, the world’s largest private water corporation, Veolia, deemed Flint’s water safe. They were hired by the city to assess water that many residents had been complaining about—a General Motors plant had even stopped using Flint’s water because it was rusting car parts.

Veolia, a French transnational corporation, deemed Flint’s water to be “in compliance with State and Federal regulations.” While they recommended small changes to improve water color and quality, their report didn’t mention lead.

The city paid Veola 40,000 for that advice. Apparently, state government lacked the expertise to assess either the water quality or Veola’s competence to test it.

Whether the Governor and/or his aides were criminally negligent is a determination for the courts. That they are responsible for incalculable damage is inarguable.

Let me be clear: I have a bias here. I teach in a school of public affairs, a school that operates on the belief that competent public management requires knowledge of public finance, an understanding of the policy process, and respect for democratic institutions, public law and public ethics. We offer rigorous courses in those and related subjects.

Contrary to what appears to be popular opinion, the average businessman or CEO cannot just waltz into a government office and do a credible job; very different constraints—both managerial and ethical— apply to public service. You cannot do what Governor Snyder did, and simply abort the democratic process, install your preferred puppet to manage political subdivisions in accordance with your preferred ideology, and “hire out” essential responsibilities.

When we elect people who don’t understand the difference between the public and private sectors, and don’t care to learn, we get Flint.


  1. I can only imagine an employee in that building that sees those water coolers being installed so that one wouldn’t have to drink from the faucet and worry that if they opened their mouth to ask WTF, they’d be terminated for insubordination. I know I would be worried if I had worked in that building. Synder should be in jail. Michael Moore has been all over this story considering he lives in Flint part time and has a lot of family still living there. It’s just criminal.

  2. While the conditions in Flint, Michigan are life-threatening, countless people outside the state of Michigan are providing safe water, political cover-ups continue and rectifying the situation seems to be non-existent…the media keeps reporting and officials keep ignoring.

    Bringing it closer to home; what is going on with the cancer cluster south of Marion County which families and an Eli Lilly researcher have pointed to hazardous waste in the ground water seeping into wells of drinking water? They suggested a long abandoned business site as a possible source; this issue was shut down by the media after public health officials declared it is NOT a cancer cluster due to different forms on cancer in the 27 patients within the 25 mile-square area affected. Well; the 26 patients remaining who are fighting for their lives, one patient died on his 3rd birthday from his cancer after multiple surgeries. It has long been known that hazardous waste from one site can and does cause different forms of cancer in different patients.

    We can support the Flint victims and “boo” the state officials responsible; but, do we have to ignore what is happening in our own backyard while doing so?

  3. You neglected to mention that Veolia ran Indianapolis’ water utility for a number of years courtesy of a sweetheart privatization deal awarded to it by Mayor Bart Peterson. This company repeatedly engaged in fraudulent billing practices of water utility users. When Mayor Greg Ballard sold the water utility to Citizens Energy at an inflated price, we got stuck with a $30 million break-up fee that had to be paid to Veolia to terminate their sweetheart contract. Veolia was represented by Barnes & Thornburg in that transaction. Our then council president, Ryan Vaughn, worked for Barnes & Thornburg at the time, but it didn’t stop him from spearheading the approval of the deal through our corrupt City-County Council. I’ve always wondered what Vaughn’s bonus at Barnes & Thornburg looked like that year. Was it more or less than the year he pushed the privatization deal for ACS/Xerox through the council, another client of his law firm employer? These are all things, of course, that our current mayor, Joe Hogsett, refused to investigate as federal prosecutor. In a matter of speaking, he told those complaining to f ____ off.

  4. This is another example showing that Government is not a business. It requires a significantly different skill set to meet all of the obligations of government and when a private entity says they can operate a function cheaper, you can bet that they are cutting some important service(s), or do not really understand the job that needs to be done. There just has to be some “adjustment” of the work required in order to allow the private company to “make a profit”.

  5. Just as English 101 is required, given the condition of our governance, a very strong argument can be made that a survey course in SPEA should be required before one can obtain the baccalaureate degree. It would benefit society in several ways.

  6. This is why I believe some services should never be privatized. Water is one of them. My family hates it when I talk about what the City of Minneapolis and the State of Minnesota do better than Indiana and other places but, water is definitely one of them.
    Here is there mission statement:

    The City of Minneapolis produces safe, clean drinking water for people who work in, visit and live in Minneapolis. Our Water Works division also supplies tap water to seven suburbs, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport and Fort Snelling State Park.

    Our mission is to reliably provide safe, high-quality drinking water while serving as effective stewards of public resources and infrastructure.

    The services provided by the Minneapolis Water Works include the supply, treatment and distribution. Our product consistently meets higher standards than those set by local, state and federal regulatory agencies.

    I can tell you that I NEVER paid as much for a water bill as the people in Flint are being charged AND Minneapolis has been investing in updating it’s oldest ground systems (100 yrs) for over 25 years as it proceeds with re-development plans. You can do this when you’re a PUBLIC utility and don’t have to send your profits to shareholders!

  7. Just a short comment I have made in many times and in many places before: Privatization of public services is ALWAYS as misnomer. The proper word to describe it is Piratization–and all pirates should be apprehended, tried, and incarcerated or worse.

  8. Indianapolis is fortunate to have water and gas managed by Citizens Energy, a nonprofit set up many years ago exclusively for public benefit.

  9. Here’s another perspective.

    Testing for lead content in water is easy and precise. The government standards for acceptable lead content in drinking water are clear and precise. When Veolia first tested the water I imagine lead was within guidelines.

    So what’s the problem? I would suggest aging ignored infrastructure. Pipes that were made of ancient iron rather than new plastic. Pipes that reacted to marginal new water with a tired sigh and a dose of rust that they could no longer hold onto.

    Beside the aging and ignored now dysfunctional pipes was a government with an aged and dysfunctional political worldview that the decrepit pipes were good enough for poor people. A death here and a death there reduces welfare and besides who drinks tap water anyway now that there’s Evian from the springs of France in genuine plastic bottles instead of rusty old pipes?

    Investment is driven by hope and change. When people don’t invest in a better future they get an extended and aging and tired past. Exactly why conservatism has failed government, business and religion. The results are in. The data has been tabulated and analyzed. Failure is everywhere.

    The experiment is over and we’ve learned. We have a plan for success, for hope and change. It’s time to execute it.

  10. Here’s a wake up call for the wealthy. When bridges collapse the impact will be more democratic than rusty water to poor neighborhoods.

  11. Citizens Energy is no longer run like the public benefit corporation it was established to be run. Its executives earn salaries comparable to their overpaid counterparts in the utility industry. Their board members are paid generous fees for their “volunteer” service to the board. They waste money entertaining insiders at sporting and other entertainment events on our dime and waste money on advertising to convince us they’re doing a swell job running the utilities while seeking double-digit rate increases from the IURC annually.

  12. Will we learn the right lessons from Flint? Obviously, the answer is “no”. I’m sensing that many people are content to settle a widespread public health issue with a decidedly short-sighted partisan answer illustrating, at least to me, a lack of curiosity, critical thinking, and a laziness of thought processes that leads to quick answers for complex problems.

    Municipal water districts across the US including the Mayors of those municipalities and the EPA have been well aware of documented drinking water quality issues with lead as far back as 2000, and yet these water districts, city leaders, and even the EPA behaved in stereotypical bureaucratic fashion by circling the wagons and covering their asses. Human nature somehow transcends partisanship.

    The most widely investigated water lead crisis occurred in Washington, DC in the early 2000’s, a crisis far more widespread than the current Flint crisis and a crisis that was withheld from the water customers for 2 years via the joint actions of the DC Water and Sewer Assn and the EPA.

    Top officials of Washington’s publicly-owned water utility had been aware of lead problems since at least 2002, when the city tested 53 homes and found that drinking water contamination in more than half of them exceeded a federal trigger level. According to a former utility official turned whistleblower, some knew about it a year before that; she said they agreed to let her manipulate test results to hide the problem, but her superiors, who fired her, deny that.

    The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority’s (WASA) annual water quality reports repeatedly assured customers the water was safe. When they were required to send a brochure to city residents about the lead problem, they used vague words. After the Washington Post began looking closely, the EPA accused the utility of failing to employ required warning language, such as “unhealthy.” The EPA directly regulates WASA, meaning that EPA officials in the Philadelphia regional office saw the brochure before it went out.


  13. One current issue is what constitutes “safe” and what level of reduced risk is affordable. In general I believe that the usefulness of fear monger marketing has reset common sense in many minds resulting in the notion that “perfectly safe” is attainable which it’s not.

    Traditionally the arbiter of safe has been science but more and more that mantle is being passed to marketing. The difference? Science uses sophisticated experimentation, precise measurement, and elaborate data analysis. Marketers instead use rate of return and it turns out that an adequately if misinformed sense of threat can have an amazing return on investment in some businesses. Of course one of those businesses is health care and marketing based health care is one of the reasons that our costs are 2X everybody else’s.

    So, once again, living sensibly takes some work and skepticism. Question things that after some investigation look to come from marketing. Read many scientific sources to make sure that an outlier isn’t what’s informing you. Take a continuing education course in everyday statistics in order to translate the jargon.

    We are both the safest and freest folks to ever walk the planet but life is a death sentence and only your immune system fends it off for much of the time.

    Life is not as easy as marketers whisper in your ear 24/7 now.

  14. Pete, you’re correct in mentioning the power of the marketing man that exists only because we are easily manipulated by the various forms of propaganda that provide easy answers to complex problems. Marketing depends upon lazy minds.

  15. During the news coverage of the Toledo water supply contamination by agricultural runoff, I received a newsletter from Luke Messer in which he sang the praises of farmers as stewards of the environment and clean water. I copied an article from the local Toledo newspaper and sent it to him. I think I asked him how he could make a statement like that against the backdrop of Toledo water supply contamination. I never received a response. He’s in a safe district.

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