Web 2.0 Tools Strengthen Toxic Substances Control in California

Shell Culp, CIO of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, explains how blogs, wikis, databases and new legislation help keep toxins out of products.

by / April 19, 2009

In recent years U.S. consumers dealt with several frightening instances of contaminated products reaching their shelves -- dog food, children's toys and other products -- that contained poisons or heavy metals. At the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), CIO Shell Culp and her staff are using a combination of technology tools and legislation to keep toxins out of manufactured goods, while keeping Californians informed about what goes into the items they buy. To do this, the agency launched the Green Chemistry Initiative, a campaign to label manufactured goods similarly to food products. The initiative, which sparked the passage of two state laws, gives the DTSC new abilities to identify what chemicals are coming into the state via manufactured goods.

In this interview, Culp describes how the department uses new Web technologies, internally and externally, to accomplish its expanded mission. The department is among the first in the nation to use a wiki to collect public comment as it develops regulations to implement the Green Chemistry Initiative. The simple yet effective tool goes a long way toward more transparent government. But as the DTSC's duties evolve, Culp said employees need an outlet to share their thoughts and voice their objections. Interestingly the department lets staff post anonymous comments, positive or negative, to an internal blog. In the public sector, where speaking your mind isn't always an option, Culp described how Web 2.0 tools are helping employees manage change.

What is the DTSC's mission?
At its most basic, our mission is to protect the health and safety of California in terms of toxic substances. The Green Chemistry Initiative is very forward-looking, where before we were always concerned about what was coming out of the pipe at the end. We'd have all these manufacturing processes and life cycles of goods and products, and we were concerned with what happened to them after the end of their useful life or the end of the manufacturing process and cleaning up the junk that was left. The Green Chemistry Initiative really refocuses that view into "Let's not get to toxic waste. Let's make sure that chemicals and products used in the manufacturing process are green to start with and/or the product's next use is identified before it goes into production, so we don't have to clean anything up."

Can you talk about the blog DTSC created and its purpose?

It provides a channel of communication for feedback from employees. It's an internal blog. We implemented the blog so we could give employees a way to complain, make suggestions and offer feedback. We're in the middle of some big change initiatives, where we're flattening the structure of the department and implementing performance measures. That stirs up a fair amount of consternation for the employees. So the blog enables them to give feedback on any of those change initiatives.

We had used an older technology -- WebBoard. It has a newer version, but we used an ancient version. It's on our intranet, but it's not pretty. Because it wasn't pretty, our Office of Human Capital felt like we wanted to do something different -- a suite of tools to let people attach pictures, videos and that sort of thing. So we switched up and started using TypePad and moderated it. But that didn't really sit well with the employee base, and we didn't get any participation on it like we did with the old, funky WebBoard that provided a fair measure of anonymity. For a five-month period, we had TypePad and people had to log in and identify themselves -- and nobody used it. So we scrapped that and went back to the old WebBoard last month, and people are back letting

us know what they think.

Although things like logging in aren't difficult, can they be significant obstacles to getting people to participate online?
When we put the WebBoard piece back, the [DTSC] director, Maureen Gorsen, enjoined people not to attack each other. It had gotten kind of ugly with the personal attacks. We're not seeing that again, but we are seeing a fair amount of bellyaching. We'd really like to see people offering good suggestions for problems, rather than just, "Here's a problem," and not addressing possible solutions. We get some of that, but we're hoping over time, as the culture shifts away from a regulatory, command and control kind of organization -- as we move more toward the team-based, collaborative culture -- that people will see the power of the tools we're using now to make things better and not just point out how bad they are.

How does that play in the government space, allowing people to basically say whatever they want?
It's different. It kind of freaks out people who are new to the organization because essentially somebody can tell me, "You suck." That's always been kind of an IT thing anyway -- the IT department has always had that kind of feedback from people. They can actually call people's names out and say, "That Shell Culp, she's the worst CIO we've ever had." Nobody has said that, but they can. And they say similar things about other people. So it's considerably different. I'm hoping it will provide an instant customer feedback. Our employees are our customers, after all. So maybe we will get used to making adjustments in how we deal with employees and make things better for them.

What is the Green Chemistry Initiative? Does it have anything to do with the blog?
The blog doesn't really have a role in green chemistry. Green chemistry has a role in the blog. We have moved away from the programs this department used to have as its core business programs. We're permitting, corrective actions, cleanups and things like that. To that mix, we have added green chemistry. That's been a somewhat disruptive event for employees. Not all employees are onboard yet with why that's an important programmatic change, so the blog helps employees discuss, vent and ask about green chemistry.

Separate from the blog is the Green Chemistry Initiative, which resulted in two key bills passed last year, SB 509 and AB 1879, that resulted in the green chemistry program.

The initiative used a forum discussion space outside of the department to conduct public comment. That was the first we were aware of anyone in government using such a tool, and [the DTSC] is presently using a wiki to ask for and receive public comment on the regulations the bill requires.

How are you getting the word out that the wiki's available for public comment?

Right now we are using a combination of things -- our public Web page for the department; we have thousands of people on our "listserv" to publicize that wiki, to go there and provide their comments on that wiki. There will be other ways people can provide comment; the standard workshop avenue will be available. The kinds of changes that have been made to our regulations discussion will be used to jumpstart the workshops.

How will these two pieces of legislation impact what you do and what you plan to do?
[They] essentially require the department to put together a toxics clearinghouse about the toxicity of "chemicals of concern," so a manufacturer looking at its recipe for a compound would be able to go

to that clearinghouse and see if any of the chemicals in that recipe are chemicals of concern. And if they are, what some alternatives are so we're not creating toxic products and toxic waste to begin with.

The European Union and Canada have made probably the best progress globally on those kinds of data. California is certainly out front in terms of putting something like this together. But essentially, what we found in the Green Chemistry Initiative is chemists aren't trained to look at the toxicity of [materials] before they're made.

Some of the things we're looking at: How do we make sure the chemistry community is prepared to design cleaner products? The legislation itself requires us to put together this toxics clearinghouse, but it also enables us to require companies that sell products in California to tell us what's in them. Just like you have an ingredients label for food, we may see an ingredients label for products. Some companies are already volunteering to do that.

How do you get international manufacturers on board with this?
Those international manufacturers are already doing business in Europe, and Europe is already a little bit out in front of us. This isn't something they haven't already seen. We're sort of jumping on that bandwagon, but as the first in the United States to do it, that differentiates us from the rest of the states. But we're certainly not the first in the world to think about this.

Could any Californian look at this database to see what is in products?
It will be on the Web, but we're still looking for people's suggestions on whether it will be a database or more of a "crawled" product. So you might be able to enter a chemical name in the system, and whatever we put together goes out and crawls and finds all of the data on that, and repackages and displays it, so you have not only the toxicity information, but also information about potential alternatives -- maybe even some health effects about what this [particular ingredient] can do.

Is this system something you're building internally?
It may turn out that we don't actually have to have a database. The legislation says we will develop data. Some people are interpreting that as we will have a database and we will maintain it. The alternative to that is, is that something government needs to have? Or is it something we can get from a number of different sources that have been validated and display it? The legislation also says we'll do it as cheaply as possible. So I'm leaning away from building a database and maintaining that.

Did any of the recent problems with imported goods, like pet food and children's toys, help spur this legislation?
Absolutely. Those were all key things. And in fact, that enforcement action a year ago in December [2007] for lead in toys -- that was our department enforcing lead in jewelry laws. Those kinds of laws create disparate enforcement actions, and if you're going to do it in a one-off fashion, you can't really coordinate the design of cleaner products. You end up creating products that don't have "X," but they might have five other toxins. What we wanted to do with the Green Chemistry Initiative is create a coordinated approach. That's what we believe we've done.

How do you determine the accuracy of what manufacturers are telling you about their products?
There probably wouldn't be random testing as part of quality assurance. That would probably come about as part of an enforcement action. Essentially the law will compel the manufacturers of products to tell us what's in them.

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.