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Government efficiency - really

Published September 03. 2013 4:00AM

As hard as it is to believe, and for some to accept, there are times when government can figure out how to do things more efficiently. Such has been the case at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The agency is figuring out how to carry out its regulatory role quicker and more deftly without detracting from its role of protecting the environment.

Under DEEP Commissioner Daniel Esty, the agency has continued to expand the use of LEAN principles that begun during the administration of Gov. M. Rodi Rell, predecessor to Mr. Esty's boss, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

The LEAN approach has its origins in the private sector, more particularly Japanese manufacturing. The intent is to focus the resources of an organization on providing value to the customer, or in the state's case the public. It calls for assessing all aspects of production, for DEEP all aspects of the permitting/regulatory process, and eliminating actions that are unnecessary, while seeking to do necessary steps more efficiently.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency requires that DEEP inspect the 4,000 facilities using underground storage tanks at least once every three years. In recent years the department's Underground Storage Tank program has worked to streamline the inspection program and institute consistent operating procedures. Inspectors now utilize modern technology to electronically file inspection results from the field. The total processing time for an underground storage inspection has dropped from 48 days to 1.4 hours.

Due to these efforts the rate of inspections has increased from 20 per month to 133.

The DEEP's Office of Long Island Sound Programs is doing a better job of using a pre-application process to sort out minor activities appropriate for a shorter permit process. These can include minor dredging, dock replacement or repairing a seawall. This not only speeds up the permitting process for minor applications, but also for more complex permits by freeing staff to focus on them. Average processing time from application to decision has been cut 70 percent, down to 167 days.

Other examples include a 77 percent reduction in the time to process wastewater discharge permits; a 78 percent reduction in inland water use permits; and a 78 percent improvement in closing backlogged violation cases.

Eric Brown, director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA), said the environmental agency's success in reducing the time and difficulty in permitting is at least one way the state has become more business friendly. He also welcomed the use of general permits. Where in the past, for example, a metal-finishing plant would have to go through an individual permit process to see what it had to do to comply with state regulations, now there is a single generalized permit spelling out requirements for all such industries.

All that most plant owners desire is a process that is understandable, consistent and reasonably timely, he said, acknowledging that Connecticut has made significant strides in meeting those expectations. (He does, however, contend that Connecticut still has too many requirements not demanded in other states.)

Driving these changes, at least in part, is necessity. Staffing has been reduced in the last several years as Connecticut confronted a series of fiscal crises. Only about one in five retirees has been replaced at DEEP over the last few years, said Mr. Esty. Full-time staff is 973, down 7.8 percent from 2011. Many state agencies must learn to do more with less.

Additionally, Mr. Esty said, improving efficiency in dealing with routine matters frees staff to focus on more complex and demanding work.

Stereotypes - like the blundering state bureaucracy that can never improve - are not always true.

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