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Public Service Delivery Can Be A Matter Of Life And Death

03/08/2016 04:23 EST | Updated 03/09/2017 05:12 EST
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FILE - This Feb. 5, 2016 file photo shows the Flint Water Plant tower in Flint, Mich. Michigan, seeking to prevent another oversight fiasco after lead poisoning in Flint and a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the area, is considering new water testing rules for hospitals and possible changes to how large facilities manage their water systems that could include new monitoring requirements. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

The Flint, Mich. water crisis is a harsh example of why managing public services matters. Failure can be a matter of life and death.

Despite this, most glory in the public service goes to policy developers -- not the grunts on the frontlines. In Canada, policy shops are where deputy ministers and senior officials focus almost all of their time and attention. It is also where politicians love to wade. This is not unique to our country, as Flint demonstrates in a particularly ugly fashion.

But service delivery is where the rubber hits the road of real life. Recommended reading: What is Government Good At?, by Donald Savoie of the University of Moncton. A former Canadian federal deputy minister, Professor Savoie describes the policy-versus-operations paradigm as well as anyone and speaks truth to power. Unfortunately, truth does not always lead to salvation.

Today we have Flint, but back in 2000, two hapless brothers, Stan and Frank Koebel, ran the water treatment plant in Walkerton, Ont. In May of that year, locals began suffering the effects of E. coli poisoning, up to and including death.

Many years later those who survived continue to endure devastating health issues. In sum, there had been testing that showed the water was contaminated, but the Koebel brothers and the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission continued to report that it was safe to drink.

All was OK with the groundwater source. Except all was not OK. The water was contaminated from farm runoff. It was killing people, five in all, with another 2,500 becoming ill.

The you-know-what literally hit the fan. The easy thing was to put the blame on the Koebels, and rightly so. The subsequent investigation and trials not only proved the brothers incompetent and negligent, but also guilty of drinking on the job (beer, not water). But it was not that simple.

Clearly the checks and balances that people would expect for something as important as potable water safety had failed in a catastrophic way. The various levels of government had policies in place. They were, however, less than diligent on the delivery side.

The people of Walkerton paid the ultimate price. Then-Ontario premier Mike Harris paid some much lesser political price. And, unfortunately, those responsible for enforcing water regulations went home to their cozy beds unscathed. At least I hope their consciences ache even now.

Fast forward to 2016 in Flint, Mich., where lead in the drinking water has reached a level that is making people sick. Like Walkerton, by sick, I mean in a life threatening and permanent harm kind of way. Children are especially vulnerable as lead threatens their livers and kidneys.

While the situation is still ongoing, investigations are finding results that can only be described as ridiculous, irresponsible and potentially criminal.

Among the findings was that government regulators may have known of the dangers well in advance, and if they did then they took a cavalier attitude even as lives were at risk. If this is true, they would have been more than negligent -- dismissive and even mocking toward the people of Flint who expressed concerns.

It seems like Flint officials put cost savings policies above all. State regulators seem to have operated at the same level of diligence and responsibility as the Koebel brothers. Like the brothers -- and despite all evidence to the contrary -- they assured people that the water was fine.

Ironically, I expect public service leaders and politicians to continue their focus on policy while paying lip service or even scoffing at delivery. Suffering will continue. This includes the confidence people have in their leaders and government institutions. A small bit of Karma.

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