Water affordability as poetry and prose

Can declaring a human right to water help address affordability?

Something extraordinary is unfolding in California.

In 2012, to great fanfare, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 685, which amended the state’s water code to declare that: “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.” The move was lauded by environmental justice advocates. One United Nations official gushed that AB685 would “…be an inspiration not only for other states within the USA, but equally for many other countries in the world.”

The declaration drew little notice among America’s water utility managers.

Thing is, California isn’t the first state to declare a human right to water in law. Pennsylvania and Massachusetts enshrined a right to water in their state Constitutions—in 1971 and 1972, respectively. Those declarations of rights didn’t translate into safe, clean, and affordable water for all the citizens of those states.  I’ve always been a bit uneasy about declarations of a human right to water. That’s not because I have any philosophical objection to the idea, but because declaring rights is a lot easier than making those rights meaningful to real people in real communities.

Cheap talk

Game theorists sometimes use “signaling models” to describe political behavior. In these models, people signal their intentions to other people. When those signals are costless to send and non-binding to the sender, the signals are “cheap talk.” When players learn that political words are meaningless, they can fall into a babbling equilibrium, in which political actors simply talk past each other, knowing that no one else’s words mean anything.

The trouble with cheap talk is that it doesn’t advance constructive public policy. Worse yet, it breeds cynicism. Their constitutional right to “pure water” is little solace to the people of rural Pennsylvania whose drinking water has been contaminated by hydrofracking. Utility managers are unlikely to take seriously mere rhetorical flourishes.

Is there any reason to think things will be different in California? Maybe.

Costly signals

Game theory also hints at when political signals augur meaningful policy changes: when political signals are costly to send and are accompanied by binding conditions, they indicate that real changes are likely to follow. That’s why the really exciting development isn’t AB685’s declaration of a human right to water, but rather AB401. This decidedly less sexy 2015 law ordered the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to craft a statewide water affordability rate assistance program. That’s a first step—but a meaningful one—on the road to a comprehensive affordability policy. It’s not an affordability solution, but it is a costly signal.

The magic combination of vision with resources recalls the 1972 Clean Water Act, which combined the lofty goal of fishable and swimmable American waters by 1983 with a comprehensive regulatory regime and tens of billions of dollars in federal funding to support construction of wastewater systems. While far from perfect, the Clean Water Act has been enormously successful in cleaning the nation’s waters—because Congressional aspirations were matched with administrative authority and ample funding. The Clean Water Act didn’t emerge fully-formed from Earth Day 1970; it was the culmination of years of development.

“Campaign in poetry, govern in prose.” –Mario Cuomo

The unglamorous task of making AB685’s rhetoric into reality falls to the bureaucracy. The SWRCB has been working to craft policies to assess and address water affordability pursuant to AB401. To that end, tomorrow I’ll be in Sacramento to participate in a SWRCB symposium on water affordability—an early step in the state’s effort to turn the poetry of rights into the prose of guidelines, analysis, rules, regulations, and programs. I’m excited to be a part of this extraordinary effort to put a compelling affordability plan in front of the legislature.

*This post was inspired in part by an interesting twitter exchange with Mike Antos, Laura Feinstein, and Mark Lubell.

What’s up with the Blue Angels?

One of my favorite things about growing up in Seattle was Seafair, an annual three-week festival, featuring hydroplane races, ethnic celebrations, beauty pageants, a Navy flotilla on Elliott Bay, and a wild nighttime torchlight parade.*

But for me, the best part of Seafair is the Blue Angels.

The Blue Angels is a demonstration squadron of fighter jets that performs aerobatic shows. They fly over Seattle for several days during Seafair, culminating in a magnificent performance over Lake Washington on the festival’s last day. The pilots execute graceful, death-defying stunts that amaze and astonish. Like thousands of other Seattle kids, I grew up fantasizing about flying a Navy jet on an aircraft carrier. For too many people in this world, the thunder of military jets connotes terror; I’m fortunate to associate that sound with exhilaration.

Thing is, the Blue Angels serve no tactical military purpose; the squadron’s $40 million annual budget and 7-pilot, 17-officer, 100-sailor team is an investment in brand-building. Brands are important sources of profit, and so naturally businesses invest heavily in their brands. But the US Navy isn’t supposed to generate profits, so what’s the point of the Blue Angels?

Why public agency brands matter

Public agencies have brand equity just like businesses do. Agency names, logos, songs, slogans, and other images carry positive or negative associations that make people more or less favorable toward the agency. For public managers, positive brand equity facilitates implementation in lots of ways.

Brand equity can strengthen or weaken morale. Agencies with strong brand equity have an easier time attracting talented employees—which is important because governments often cannot compete for the best employees on salary and benefits alone.

How many kids grew up wanting to be FBI agents after watching X-Files? Or wanting to be motorcycle cops because they liked Ponch and Jon on CHiPs?

Shrewd public managers know that brand equity is a political asset. A strong brand can buffer their organizations from politicians in times of crisis, and help build a coalition in support of expanded or enhanced authority. Leaders of agencies with strong brands can protect their “turf.” Citizens are more supportive of government programs when those programs are explicitly associated with favored agencies, too. My last post reported on a recent experiment that found that support for government management increased when associated with a specific agency’s name. Rhea Graham’s terrific response affirmed my sense that public managers think carefully about their agencies’ brands.

Implications for policy design

We typically think that assignment of implementation responsibility should follow capacity and competencies—that agencies with the necessary human capital and facilities should handle implementation. Brand equity introduces another dimension to the delegation decision. In some highly partisan contexts, it may make sense to assign implementation to multiple agencies in ways that align with their respective brand equity.

The findings in my recent study suggest that the US Army Corps of Engineers might make implementation of water policies easier in “Red” states than in “Blue” states. For the latter, the EPA probably might enjoy greater brand equity even if it lacks some of the USACE’s technical capacity. It’s an idea worth exploring.

*In the 1990s, organizers moved up the “torchlight” parade to daytime in response to worries about crime. Seafair Pirates and Clowns became much less… exuberant. The parade is now a pleasant but decidedly less bacchanalian affair.

Roses by other names

Ever notice that people hate government but love certain government agencies?

A couple years ago I was shopping at Target and noticed racks full of NASA-branded merchandise for sale. The idea that bureaucraphobic Americans would pay to wear a garment with a government agency’s logo printed on it startled me. Evidently people feel pretty good about NASA. Corporations work very hard (and mostly fail) to create that kind of brand loyalty, and with good reason: brand equity is a great source of profitability for businesses.

Around the same time I joined a group of researchers at the Texas A&M Institute for Science, Technology, and Public Policy (ISTPP) on a big project about the Water-Food-Energy Nexus. ISTPP conducted a national public opinion survey on water, energy, and agricultural policy as part of that effort. Inspired in part by my Target shopping experience, I wondered: would public support for government regulation of water, energy, and agriculture change if it were associated with a particular agency?

In other words, do federal agencies have brand equity with the American public?

An experiment

To tease out agency brand effects, we embedded an experiment in our survey. We asked a randomly selected 50% of our respondents about the proper role of the Federal Government in managing energy and agriculture; the other 50% of participants were asked about the U.S. Department of Energy or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For water, we split the sample in thirds: one third were asked about the  Federal Government, one third about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and one third about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Of course, all of these agencies are bureaucracies within the federal government. So qualitatively “Department of Energy” and “Federal Government” are the same thing.

The experimental results were striking. Average public support for government management of energy increased significantly when associated with the Dept. of Energy, agriculture when associated with the USDA, and water when associated with the EPA. The only agency that didn’t generate a positive average brand effect was the Army Corps of Engineers. But it turns out that’s because Americans seem to see…

Brands through partisan lenses.

It turns out that, as with so many things, Democrats and Republicans see things in different ways. Average positive brand effects were stronger for Republicans than Democrats, maybe because the former have negative attitudes toward the “generic” Federal Government. But the most fascinating thing is that the Corps of Engineers had opposite effects on partisans: positive for Republicans, negative for Democrats.

You can read the full details of the study in an article I authored with Seung-Ho An, now forthcoming in JPART. In a future post I’ll ponder what all this means for policy and public management.

Oh, and I did end up buying a NASA t-shirt for my niece. She’s adorable.