by Sarah D. Scalet

PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION: Working in a Deeper Shade of Green

News
Feb 01, 20027 mins
Business IT Alignment

Five years ago, if hundreds of dead fish washed up on the banks of a river in Pennsylvania, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had a lot more than an environmental emergency on its hands. It had a logistical nightmare. Inspectors had to make a flurry of telephone calls to offices that monitor different aspects of the environment?air quality, drinking water, waste management, mining and the like?to figure out what caused the problem. Meanwhile, as they wasted time and money trying to pull together the critical information from disparate systems, more fish were dying.

No longer. “Now, if we see a segment of a stream that’s impaired, we can pull up a GIS application and say, ’Show me all the facilities that we regulate that are upstream or downstream within five miles of this point,’” says CIO Karen Bassett. What’s more, the data integration system that makes this efficiency possible is also helping prevent some problems from happening in the first place, as the department undergoes a radical change of mind-set, from one of merely conducting inspections and levying fines to proactively monitoring and caring for the environment.

The change in thinking hasn’t been easy, but the technology is starting to pay off, with more informed employees, more focused outreach programs, better citizen participation and a software licensing agreement that could save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.

CIO’s panel of judges agreed that the system deserved a 2002 Enterprise Value Award, and the rest of the country has also made note of its significance: Kimberly Nelson, the department’s former CIO, has been confirmed as CIO of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s part of a whole revolution in government, particularly in the environmental realm, away from being punitive and trying to catch people after the fact, to more of a partnership model,” says Enterprise Value Awards judge Doug Barker, vice president and CIO of The Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Va. “They’re working with the community to make Pennsylvania a more livable state. It’s really a win-win. The bottom line is this system will help prevent pollution, and that’s in the best interest economically and in all ways for citizens, industry and government.”

An Uphill Battle

The story begins in 1995, when former Gov. Tom Ridge?another Pennsylvanian tapped by the Bush administration, now serving as director of the Office of Homeland Security?took office and discovered that no one knew how many companies and governmental agencies were complying with environmental rules and regulations. “There was no measuring stick, there was nothing,” says DEP Secretary David Hess, talking on his cell phone as he travels through the green hills of Pennsylvania, known as much for their beauty as for the harsh mining and manufacturing that the state’s economy relies on. “You can’t manage a program without information as basic as who is complying with the laws.”

At that time, each of the department’s programs had its own systems, some of which were more technically sophisticated or widely used than others. After conducting an inspection of a manufacturing facility, for instance, a DEP employee might enter the results in a computer spreadsheet, write something down in a ledger?or not make detailed notes at all. That meant that someone who monitored, say, drinking water had no easy way to know if an organization had outstanding violations related to other kinds of pollution or in other parts of the state. Decisions to write a ticket or issue a new permit were made based more on gut instinct than on information.

So the department embarked on a $20 million project that eventually would be known as eFACTS: Environment, Facility, Application, Compliance Tracking System. The goal was to create integrated monitoring and management tools that would let employees manage their workflow, generate complex reports and view information spatially. As an added benefit, officials realized that much of that information could then be put online so that citizens who wanted to learn about pollution in their neighborhoods wouldn’t have to sort through a dozen paper files at their local DEP office.

Not everyone was thrilled with the idea. Businesses were leery of what would be made available online and whether information would be misinterpreted. Department employees were skeptical too. Not only would eFACTS initially mean more work?learning a new system, tracking new data?but two previous efforts to integrate the agency’s 17 data silos had failed.

Nevertheless, with the governor’s full support, Hess and then CIO Nelson made it clear that failure was not an option. “We really threw home the point that this is the only tool we’re going to allow them to have to track compliance,” Hess says.

Nelson kept the planning process open by hosting dozens of roundtable meetings with employees, businesses and citizens. She also split the project into manageable chunks, including converting legacy data (completed in 1997), launching the public website (in 1998) and rolling the system out to the department’s many programs.

One World

The system already has changed the way DEP employees work. For instance, they can make educated decisions about whether to approve each of the 20,000 permits DEP issues each year. “If you’re getting ready to issue a permit to a facility in Meadville, it would be very useful to know if the owner had any problems at their other locations,” Nelson says. “You’re not going to call six different people each time you issue a permit. This way, you can just bring up the record and look.”

Also, by using new top 10 lists of violations, staffers can focus their time and budget on the biggest challenges and prevent environmental problems from occurring. For example, the surface mining program discovered the most common violation was that companies were not constructing ponds to catch sediments and prevent them from clogging streams. In response, the department developed an education program to train bulldozer operators to do things correctly. The result: The number of violations dropped significantly, from 205 in 1996 to 119 in 2000.

There are still growing pains, to be sure. Tim Jolly, a compliance specialist with DEP’s water management program, says that some of the information he gathers is simply too complex to represent in a common system?for instance, ongoing violations that aren’t solved in one visit. Nevertheless, eFACTS has momentum. “We actually have [DEP programs] volunteering” to start using eFACTS, says Nancie Imler, bureau director of program integration and effectiveness.

A licensing agreement may yield further payoffs. More than a dozen states interested in the software contacted the department, and Pennsylvania decided to turn the task of explaining it?and selling it?over to Compaq, which helped develop it. For each state Compaq signs on, the DEP gets $250,000 in service credit.

Most important, perhaps, citizens are making use of the system. In October, the website had an average of 251 user sessions per day. Last July, the DEP unrolled an eNotice system, in which citizens can sign up to receive e-mails about permit applications in their neighborhood, and by November, 1,750 citizens had signed up for the service.

The value of eFACTS is “a terribly difficult thing to quantify,” Nelson admits from her new office at the EPA in Washington, D.C. “It’s a matter of the culture and the focus of the organization?is it going to be a problem-solving organization or a reactive, enforcement organization? If you want to be proactive, then you need information like this to make it happen.”