By Carmen Sirianni & Ann Ward

October 13th 2020

This past August, a bipartisan network of more than 500 former career employees and political appointees at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who have served under multiple Democratic and Republican administrations, issued an extraordinarily thoughtful and timely report calling for a major course correction at the agency.

The report, Resetting the Course of EPA: Recommendations from the Environmental Protection Network, calls for EPA to reaffirm its commitment to fully protect public health and the environment free from political interference.

While its detailed recommendations range over science, economics, enforcement, budget, workforce, and international cooperation, as well as the major offices of Air, Water, and Toxics, Pesticides and Superfund, it locates civic engagement, collaboration, and environmental justice as core values that should be driven still further into agency practices.

The document provides a breath of fresh air that maps a way forward from recent partisan attacks on the agency, as well as from some historic agency deficits. It outlines specific and actionable steps, but is not meant as a singular roadmap. Rather, it aims to elicit collaboration and dialogue on the future of an agency that remains vital to a healthy, sustainable, and democratic future.

Here we focus primarily on those components that are most central to civic engagement for sustainable, resilient, and just communities, but also recognize a core theme of these recommendations, which is to skillfully align the civic and democratic with the technical, regulatory, administrative, and economic.

Environmental justice

Environmental justice (EJ) became an agency goal at the beginning of the Clinton administration, but even favorable presidents and agency administrators have had difficulty orienting staff, budgets, and legal and regulatory tools to make determined and sustained progress. Some institutional components, such as the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) and the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG), have provided important foundations, but scholarly studies have demonstrated many constraints and shortfalls (see Environmental Justice in our CivicGreen Glossary).

Resetting the Course addresses how to remedy these deficits in its chapter, Incorporating Environmental Justice in Every Aspect of EPA’s Work, and how to align civic engagement with legal, technical, and enforcement tools (e.g. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act). Among its many recommendations are:

  • funding community grants: EPA should request increased funding and legal authority to enhance grants for community engagement among historically underserved groups through the Environmental Justice Small Grants program, the EJ Collaborative Problem Solving Cooperative Agreement (EJCPS) program, and the Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) grant program. Additional full-time equivalent (FTE) staff should be added at headquarters and in all ten regional offices to help support robust community engagement through these and similar programs. (On how the latter two grant programs work, see EJCPS/CARE in CivicGreen Policy).
  • funding for community-driven science: in addition to restoring science as the backbone of EPA’s decision-making, EPA should invest in training and supporting community members in community-driven science, as well as proficient advisers with the language and cultural skills to work with them. This could be led by an EPA/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences initiative.
  • re-engage with tribes and indigenous populations: based upon tribal sovereignty, lived experiences, and government-to-government consultation and whenever EPA actions and decisions may affect indigenous people’s interests.
  • alternative dispute resolution: sincelocal environmental justice disputes are often very contentious and sometimes have no easy resolution among community stakeholders, EPA should provide guidance on the use of alternative dispute resolution.
  • mapping and screening tools: these should be further improved with community consultation to assess cumulative and disproportionate impact on overburdened communities.
  • EPA staff: assign staff in each headquarters program and in each of the regional offices to coordinate EJ work, as well as to incorporate it into public communications, especially from the agency’s leadership.
  • enhance training: evaluate all EJ, diversity, and inclusiveness trainings and mandate that all EPA employees take at least two trainings during the next year and one annually thereafter.
  • re-engage with NEJAC and the EJ IWG: after some important lapses, the agency should resume active engagement with NEJAC and other federal advisory committees, working groups, and informal mechanisms, and among them and state, local, tribal, and community partners. The federal EJ IWG should be revitalized and be complemented by regional working groups.

In short, building capacity for environmental justice engagement in communities, among agency staff, and within broader networks of government and nongovernmental partners is an indispensable goal, as is aligning these civic capacity building investments with the full range of other tools to help make communities environmentally just and civically robust.

Collaborative governance

The EPA was created in 1970 by executive order of President Richard Nixon, and though its first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, was committed to public participation and became increasingly so over his long and storied career, his initial strategies for establishing and legitimating the agency were limited. Due to a variety of political, administrative, and statutory features at the time, EPA became a largely command-and-control agency regulating pollutant by pollutant in bureaucratic silos. Over the years, the agency introduced many innovations to enhance community engagement and collaborative practice.

The complexity of environmental problems in today’s world and the clear deficits of command-and-control – and even more so of crude and sweeping deregulation – call for further innovative ways to work across EPA offices and federal agency boundaries, to reinvigorate cooperative federalism and tribal engagement, and to enable collaboration across a large array of civic, environmental, business, labor, academic, community, and other stakeholder organizations.

Among the action items recommended are:

  • cross-agency teams: create 5-10 such teams to address the most critical and complex environmental and health issues, with a mix of national problems (e.g. climate change), economic sectors (e.g. energy), technology change (e.g. bio-based materials), and place-based challenges.
  • data and information improvement and sharing: develop a pilot of interagency collaboration in perhaps 3 states and 3-6 cities/counties with data/information sharing systems and tools to match community-based needs and preferences.
  • climate infrastructure: form a collaboration among the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Defense, and EPA to address catastrophic climate impacts, such as stormwater management and Superfund site flooding.
  • improve communication with publics: listen and learn more systematically from ordinary community residents, develop online and video tools that build trust and clearly explain what EPA programs accomplish, and make large data sets available in transparent, integrated, and user-friendly formats.
  • regional engagement: reinstate the funding for Regional Geographic Initiatives and strengthen the administrator’s support for National Estuary Programs, the Chesapeake Bay Program, the Great Lakes Program, and similar initiatives. These have served as umbrellas for extensive collaboration among local and state governments, nonprofits and businesses, and networks of civic associations with deep commitments to region, ecosystem, and locality.

In short, the many forms of collaborative governance among EPA, other federal agencies, and state, local, and tribal governments need to be strengthened in ways that also engage local communities, organized stakeholders, and publics that are informed with tools of information that are user friendly, enable further engagement and partnership, and nurture trust and respect in every direction. In our complex world facing multiple threats and much uncertainty, EPA cannot otherwise perform its vital roles with effectiveness, responsiveness, and democratic legitimacy.


Resetting the Course at EPA begins with a dedication to William Ruckelshaus, and we would resoundingly endorse this. He stood up the agency amidst fierce cross pressures and protected its integrity, while also searching for ways to incorporate citizen participation. He understood that a bureaucratic agency has the responsibility to provide a “civic education” about environmental choices as part of its mission. He returned in 1983 to rescue the agency from the deregulatory fiasco of Ronald Reagan’s initial appointees, and he further explored how citizens might deliberate about tough choices facing regulators. Later in his life he led various business and environmental partnerships, served on President Clinton’s Council for Sustainable Development, and became co-chair and champion of the Puget Sound Partnership, which has been a particularly innovative national estuary program in the state of Washington.  

Were we to honor the bipartisan tenor and substance of these efforts at resetting EPA, we could go a long way in developing the collaborative institutional muscle and civic grit needed for the challenges ahead.

Special kudos must go to these more than five hundred democratic professionals for doing some of the essential organizing to help us all think through how to align science, economics, and regulation with community, justice, and a deep sensibility for civic democracy in the best of American traditions.

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