Point of view

In defense of Skvarla, DENR and the idea of customer service

April 28, 2014 

N.C. DENR Secretary John Skvarla has been chastised for daring to demand that his environmental regulatory programs implement a customer service model as they fulfill their mission to the public. Some critics are incredulous that regulators can serve as partners to those being regulated under the law.

This divergence from a long-standing model of interaction is obviously unsettling to those who think environmental resources can be protected only through adversarial relationships with the applicants.

I spent two decades working for regulated entities: the N.C. Department of Transportation and private-sector companies in the Raleigh area. At NCDOT, I determined how proposed transportation improvement projects would affect natural resources. We coordinated with project designers to minimize the effects to these important resources. We also were responsible for applying for the necessary permits and certificates of authorization for each project from all relevant state and federal agencies.

The scientists, engineers and technical staff of the state and federal agencies responsible for ensuring compliance with the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Coastal Area Management Act and the Sedimentation Control Act are dedicated and committed civil servants. However, I can attest that many regulators historically have treated the regulated population with a fair amount of disrespect and discourtesy. A failure to return phone calls or respond to emails was not rare and not the worst of their failings.

With no goal of good customer service from regulators, applicants often were treated as inferior. The irony is that many scientists employed by regulated entities are as passionate and respectful of the environment as the regulators.

In addition, the rules were often different from one regulatory person to another, and many regulators projected an air of condescension and superiority. It often seemed they viewed the world as being populated by the virtuous (those who protect and preserve natural resources) and the transgressors (those who affect the same resources). That’s not necessarily terrible, but when they failed to see an applicant and his proposal as a credible expression of an individual or a company’s blood, sweat and tears, they often crossed a line that led to blatant disrespect and verbal conflict.

It is not true that people who regulate effectively must also be belligerent. I know plenty who aren’t.

In spite of this indictment of the attitudes and deportment of some regulatory staff members, some earned my respect. I treasure some friendships I made among state and federal regulators. However, there is no question there was a systemic malady within the regulatory community.

John Skvarla may be on the right track. Let’s give customer service a chance to bear fruit.

M. Randall Turner of Reidsville is a scientist who formerly worked in NCDOT assessing the environmental effects of road projects.

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