The Consumer Product Safety Commission and its chairman, S. John Byington, have been attacked in recent press accounts as being unorganized, ineffective, and a general failure in the eyes of those who supported the agency's creation almost five years ago.
Last weekM an internal long-range planning memorandum released to the Washington Post revealed that ther even were doubts internally about the ability of the CPSC to regulate product dafety, especially with continually shrinking budgets.
Last month, a Civil Service Commisssion report lashed out at Byington and the agency for dozens of Civil Service violations in personnel matters, including apparnt efforts on the part of Chairman Byington to subvert the system to being his own people.
In the following interview, the embattled chairman responds to critics and charts the future course of the fledgling agency as well as documenting recent achievements he feels the agency can claim.
Question: For the past several weeks, your agency has been clobbered in several stories quoting staff members, congressmen and many of the people who supported the creation of the CPSC. The complaints range from rampant violations of the civil service code on your part to an almost total failure of the agency to live up to its mandate from Congress. What is your story? Where it the agency today and what is its futute?
BYINGTON: I think you have to look at it in two different time frames - the first few years of its existence, and then at the last couple of years and what we have tried to do differently.
In the first couple of years, there is a legitimate startup time when you put a new organization together, and CPSC inherited people from four or five differnt agencies. Anytime you bring people from all of these backgrounds who have never worked together and they are all of a sudden operating under a brand new act which also includes five or six other acts, there is a legitimate aperiod of time it is going to take for them to get started and get organized.
I think that time may have taken longer than anybody had anticipated, and for the first three years it seemed there were an awful lot of organizational problems. During the time frame which predated my term as chairman, there were what I consider to be a large number of facators that impacted adversely upon that agency.
Q: But you have been at the agency since the middle of 1976? What has happened since then?
A: One of the first hings I tried to do in an early speech was to tell our constituencies and my fellow employes that the age of empathy is over. No longer can we run around saying that because we are only three years old or three and a half years old, that is an excuse for not having accomplished anything.
In summary, what we tried to do in the past year and a half has been to turn the agency around and to try and begin to put it on track so that it can begin to set a creditable record and it can begin to convice its critics that it is capable of performing as an effective agency. The bottom line is, no, we're not yet a super-effective agency, but we're getting there.
Q: Still, many of your own employes are unhappy with the direction, or lack of it, in the agency. Why?
A: That goes to what I believe is a fundamental problem with the CPSC rom the start. We are a long way from finalizing some kind of consensus with broad acceptability as to what this agency is about, and what it is really supposed to accomplish.
When I got here, there were no priorities and there was nocriteria for setting priorities. Also there were no horizontal communications and no vertical communications. The staff wasn't communicating with the comissioners and vice versa, and the staff wasn't communicating with itself.
Now, through the establishment of priorities, and through our management system, a lot of our staffers working on priority projects have some sense that what they are working on will ultimately reach the commission.
Besides, this agency was originally designed for someplace between 1,200 and 1,500 people, all of a sudden we stopped at 900, which is where we have been for four and a half years. So we have a number of people who are not particularly happy because the positions they are in are not going to have the career opportunities they thought.
And, with different people having their own ideas about what this commission should be doing, it was difficult for many of them to accept certain priorities when they were finally set.
But something good happened on Friday. Maybe all of this publicity and the planning report have done something for us, after all. We had a meeting and we seem to have come together and to use this study and the criticisms as a kind of tool to sit back and see where we are going. It was a terrific meeting, and I really think something very good is going to come out of all of this.
Q: Your critics say that you have set only three mandatory safety standards since the CPSC began, even after there were some 33 different products that were listed as requiring some kind of action by the people who created the agency. What is the problem?
A: That's like assessing the Navy on how well it's PT boats are doing. We have a whole series of things from consumer education programs to labeling, working with voluntkary standards, bans, seizures and all kinds of other programs. Nobody talks about the 30 million products that have been repurchased or repaired or replaced by companies because of actions on our part.
Q: Why did the Civil Service Commission come down so hard on the CPSC, charging all kinds of personnel violations in a recent report?
A: I think there are two reasons why we still get a hard time. The first reason from the substanative side is that everybody has their own point of view, and if you are not doing what they think you should be doing, then you are not doing a good job.
The second part is that I think it is part of the political system. You have to recognize that I happen to be a Republican who is still a chairman of a regulatory agency and that you have some people who are still unhappy with the results of the confirmation process and would like to reverse that confirmation of me.
Frankly, I think that many of the consumer activists and many of the leaders in the consumer movement who opposed me vehemently during during the confirmation process and some of the members of Congress who opposed me are still trying to prove they are right. I think it sticks in their crawl a little bit that this Republican that they argued couldn't do the job has done the job.
Q: Why has it taken a bill to pass on the Senate floor, ordering the CPSC to develop a mandatory safety standard for home insulation, to get the commission to sit down and draw up such a standard. According to the authors of the bill, the commission sat on warnings from its own field staff for more than a year before taking action.
A: There are two reasons. First, the petition (from the staff asking for a standard to be set) arrived in the middle of us trying to clean up our whole backlog of petitions. When we took a look at that inventory, we found we had 60 some petitions that were more than 120 days old, and we continued to receive an average of a couple of petitions or more a month. What we've done since that time is taken that backlog from 60 down to four, and that includes all the petitions that have arrived in the interim.
The second reason home insulation took so long was that the petition expressed concerns for all types of insulation - cellulose, fiberglass, etc. - and the concerns dealt with everything from dermatological itch to cancer. It was a monumental job for the staff even to begin to sort this out and put it together. [The proposed bill calls for specific standards for only cellulose insulation and associated fire risks.]
Q: How can you do that with shrinking budget and without popular support in the Congress?
A: We are faced with diminishing resources. By staying at $40 million, that means this present budget is equivalent in 1974 dollars, when we started, to about $28 million. In other words, we're fooling around with about one-third less money than we started with. You're right. We have a significant problem, and while our buying power goes down, all of a sudden whole new areas are opening up. Now, all of a sudden, we're supposed to be one of the lead agencies in the whole area of chronic hazards, which this agency was never established to do.
But now I believe that we're putting our priorities together. Now we are dealing with specific categories in our budget that we sent over to OMB. Then OMB and Congress can make a decision. No more just a big dollar figure for engineering. The budget is going to say what do you really want to spend on fire burn problems, what do you really want to do in mechanical hazards, etc.
And, after OMB and Congress make their decision, then we ought to be held accountable on the basis of what they gave us compared to what we presented.
Q: You are trying to do here what so many others have tried to do in the federal government, but failed. You are trying to bring private-sector management techniques to the government. What makes you think you can succeed where others, also faced with the Civil Service structure and non-profit orientation, have failed?
A: I think we can bring it in here, although I agree that there are significant problems in doing so because, unlike industry, you don't have control over some of the essentials that a manager would want to control. In industry, you have control of your own personnel situation, you have control of your own facilities, you have control over your own priunting, you have control over your own budget process, you have control over even minor things. In government, you don't have control over any of these.
We can't even consolidate this agency. We are desperately trying to bring this agency under one roof. Any ncy under one roof. Any management consultant would come in and say one of the biggest problems this agency has got is that it has a third of its staff spread all over the United States in field offices and 60 percent of the staff sitting down in a great big reconverted apartment house in Bethesda, and it's got its leadership sitting downtown in a reconverted parking lot.
But we are dealing with all of that. It is possible from an organizational point of view to begin to make improvements. We have not only line managers over engineering, but we have program managers running across the matrix who worry about each individual package. CAPTION:
Picture 1, S. JOHN BYINGTON . . . adverse factors; Picture 2, "The bottom line is , no, we're not yet a super-effective agency, but we're getting there." By James A. Parcel - The Washington Post