The One Thing That Could Have Saved Flint

The Flint disaster is a horrifying example of government gone wrong. The people of Flint are facing severe water contamination on a massive scale-- up to 12,000 children and their parents are facing lasting health and mental deterioration as a result of serious lead poisoning, others are infected with Legionnaire's Disease--more than ten are dead, and many more are affected. It didn't have to be this way.

If the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance (part of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) had explicitly recognized and prioritized their responsibility to provide clean drinking water for citizens, the Flint disaster could have been averted. Instead politics, penny-pinching, and the needs of business stakeholders reigned supreme.

If a government department does not explicitly discuss, confront and make choices about these dueling objectives, their default option is to prioritize the needs of the more visible, organized and vocal stakeholders. And more often than not, those stakeholders already happen to be in a position of privilege--often white and usually wealthy.

It is a surprisingly common problem. Many government leaders either fail to explicitly identify their core clients, or grapple with what they perceive to be dueling objectives. Who are the clients of police? If the police shoot an unarmed person, whose safety are they prioritizing? Who are the core clients of children's services departments? Are they in charge of protecting the family unit, or are they in charge of protecting children?

As I discuss in my book, Mission Control: How Nonprofits and Governments Can Focus, Achieve More, and Change the World, government leaders must make an explicit effort to clarify what their core mission is, and particularly, who their real clients are. It is not enough to feel stuck between dueling objectives, nor is it good enough to say, "We are operating in a tight budget".

In the case of Flint, if anyone had taken the time to ask this question, the answer would have been obvious. Providing safe drinking water should have been absolutely core to the mission of the Office of Drinking Water. And perhaps more importantly, their core clients are the citizens of Flint--not the businesses who use water in their factories, nor the organizations who receive funding to reroute water. And serving those clients means building a system that works for all citizens, especially those who are coming from the position of the least privilege. If a system doesn't work for those who need it most, it does not work.

I've taken large state government departments through this exercise, and it can change lives. By asking: Who should we prioritize?-- government leaders are better able to identify and respond to the needs, and protect the rights, of their core clients. Asking this question is the first critical step in the process. What comes next is to ensure systems throughout the institution support the more vulnerable clients. The priority should be clear from the top down: from what leaders say and do, to how budgeting decisions are made, to who is recruited and what behavior is rewarded. This is true even in cases (like Flint) when governments are operating with limited budgets, reduced infrastructure spend and convoluted accountability.

What would this have looked like in Flint? It would have meant that when complaints came from citizens living in poverty, they are actually given more weight and priority than when complaints came through from big corporations. In reality the opposite happened -- when General Motors reported the new water source was corroding their engine parts, their water supply was switched off and they were provided with an alternative supply source, but when citizens complained, they were told they must have been mistaken--even the governor's Chief of Staff recognized the behavior, noting in an email,

These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us.

To prevent these kinds of catastrophes, Government departments need to build in incentive systems that actually reward meeting the needs of vulnerable clients. Without these incentives, people tend to default into other ways to make decisions: like going with the cheaper option; or attending to the loudest voice.

Voters owe it to the citizens of Flint and kids everywhere to ask a different question this election cycle. Don't ask for less government -- instead, ask: how do we make sure government works for the citizens who need it the most? In this day and age, in one of the richest countries and democracies in the world, isn't it about time to demand that all citizens have access to basic services, including clean, safe drinking water?