Flint. What is it about this unfolding tragedy that is so painfully compelling? How is it that so many people at so many levels of government did not do nearly enough to protect the public, especially the children? One answer is clear: Rather than making sure that a change in the Michigan city's water supply would do no harm, government leaders focused only on cutting costs.
What's going on now in Flint reminds me in some ways of what happened in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina devastated that city nearly a decade ago. Vulnerable people in the poorest areas and those in nursing homes and hospitals were the most at risk, and governments at all levels were woefully unprepared to help them when disaster struck.
At least government leaders learned from Katrina and its aftermath. Our nation has since improved its emergency preparedness, and most communities have updated their response plans to prioritize the evacuation of vulnerable populations. Can we bring that sense of urgency to every aspect of public service? Can we learn lessons from Flint as we learned from Katrina?
Certainly one lesson might be this: Too often, ongoing fiscal pressures can drive public officials to focus on short-term savings rather than long-term priorities. The cost of fixing Flint's troubled water system will be far greater than the savings that were imagined from switching the city's water source from Detroit's system to the Flint River. And the human cost to the children affected by high levels of lead in their drinking water will not be known for decades.
The repercussions from the Flint water crisis go well beyond individual reputations. One of the greatest costs is the loss of public trust in government. As Warren Buffet has said, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that you'll do things differently."
There were individuals in the city government, the state government, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who had concerns. When high levels of lead were reported to the EPA by one resident, an EPA expert expressed concern that lead levels throughout the city might have been underreported because of the state's testing methods. Yet, five months later, an EPA administrator wrote to Flint's mayor that it would be "premature to draw any conclusions."
Clearly there was no sense of urgency about this emerging public health emergency, probably because the culture in these organizations was dominated by financial or political considerations. The city of Flint, in state receivership, was in a hunkered-down mode. And the state government was focused like a laser on getting the city's finances under control.
What can governmental leaders do to develop an organizational culture that makes better decisions -- and prevents future calamities like Flint's? They can encourage employees to speak up when they see something wrong, and they can recognize and reward performance that is accountable and ethical. They can make sure that staff development is a priority and that employees are constantly reminded of core values. The secret of good government is to make every employee and every resident feel they are part of it.
Our government workforce is going through massive changes as baby boomers retire and our nation becomes much more diverse. Governments offer idealistic young people the opportunity to make a difference in people's lives. Yes, governments need to hire people with the education and skills required for the job. But perhaps the most important qualification of all is a passion to serve the public interest. That may be the overarching lesson for government from what has happened to the people of Flint.
This article originally appeared on Governing’s website.