There’s no tougher pollution-control job in the country than running the Department of Environmental Quality in Idaho, where neither industry nor environmentalists have ever had much faith that government could do anything right. Over the years, some of the state’s most experienced administrators have insisted that the agency simply wasn’t up to the job of protecting the environment fairly.
But you don’t hear that much anymore, and the reason is Steve Allred. In three years, Allred has taken a department that was universally mistrusted and demoralized, and run it so effectively that most of the militants on either side have come to trust it. He is making environmental regulation work in a state where the mere mention of the word “bureaucrat” drives many citizens to profanity.
Managing a public agency at this stage in his life is the last thing Allred ever expected to be doing. Now 63, he thought he had put government service behind him 20 years ago. After serving as Idaho’s water resources director under three different governors, he left to work for Boise-based Morrison-Knudsen Corp. For the next 17 years, he ran a $500 million operation with 3,500 employees and supervised projects to clean up nuclear and chemical wastes from Cold War installations all over this country and inside the Soviet Union.
But while Allred lived in Cleveland for a while, he never really left Idaho. Shortly after he retired and moved back to Boise in 1998, newly elected Republican Governor Dirk Kempthorne asked him to come back into public service as director of the environmental protection program.
Idaho legislators had been beating up on the agency for decades, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was threatening to take away the state’s power to enforce air-quality standards. Allred fought them off with cost controls and performance-measurement techniques that made pollution policy both more efficient and more even-handed.
To begin with, Allred reorganized the agency, moving staff around to work on priority projects and setting benchmarks to track the cost of completing regulatory decisions. Overhead expenses were reduced by nearly one-third. “With the same budget,” Allred says, “we’re handling a workload that has almost doubled. There’s no secret to it. We’re bringing private-sector tools into the public sector, and they’re very valuable tools.”
Allred made it clear from the outset that he was willing to work with companies that made honest efforts to comply with pollution standards. But he also created checklists that regulated businesses were required to fill out to make sure they were meeting pollution standards; he began requiring plant managers to sign emission permits themselves, taking personal responsibility for complying. “He’s let it be known that when push comes to shove, he will levy fines,” says state Representative Jack Barraclough, a hydrologist who chairs the House environment committee.
Many of his admirers believe it’s Allred’s combination of public managerial background and private-sector experience that has enabled him to operate so successfully. “Steve can go into a CEO’s office and talk their language, and he knows when he’s being snowed,” says former Democratic Governor Cecil D. Andrus, Allred’s boss in the early 1970s. “He’s also qualified to cut through the BS and red tape, and he understands the necessity for resolution.”
Allred himself says he’s not looking for new challenges — either inside or outside government. “I took this job to get things turned around here,” he says, “I have a pretty clear picture in my mind of what it’s like to manage a major regulated facility. It’s pretty well institutionalized now. Once the tools are in place and people learn how to use them, they don’t go away.”
— Tom Arrandale
Photos by Glenn Oakley