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Engineer Tackles Regulatory Confusion
ENR (Engineering News Record) cover story
Several times a week, David E. Wojick drives from his Revolutionary War-era estate in Orange, Va., to the nations's capital to work on a revolution of his own in a field he dubs "regulation engineering." Armed with a technique for simplifying complex issues, Wojick says he can make regulations systematic, coherent and efficient. According to clients, Wojick's four-year-old consulting firm has scored victories with dozens of major regulations — both in critiquing them for industry and in rewriting them for government agencies.
Regulation writing should be a design science based on principles of efficiency, not a political process, contends Wojick, a professional engineer with a doctorate in logic and the philosophy of science. "A regulation is every bit as complex as a major structure. It requires the same care in construction. No one would let a committee of lawyers design an office building or a nuclear power plant, but the regulatory programs for all things are designed by committees of lawyers," Wojick says. "As a result, regulations read like insurance policies, and regulatory programs proceed like lawsuits."
Wojick says the 90,000 pages of government regulations now in force are among the most complex structures ever fabricated. "Today a 100-page regulation is small, 500 pages is not unusual, and the 10,000 pages of federal income tax regulations are a wonder of the world," he says. Because regulation writing is dominated by lawyers, regulations today are powerful and respond to popular concerns, but, Wojick claims, they are generally costly and incoherent.
Counting kinds of Confusion
Wojick's firm, Adams & Wojick Associates, has developed a matrix identifying 126 kinds of confusion in regulations. It first classifies six aspects common to any law or regulation — concepts, rules, procedures, text, structure and logic. Then it lists 21 kinds of faults, such as being ambiguous, overly complex, or ineffective. The matrix yields 126 combinations. Typical examples Wojick cites are an Environmental Protection Agency regulation with more than 3,000 exceptions and nuclear power plant quality assurance regulations that have ambiguous rules and vague procedures.
"We've been successful," Wojick says, "because everybody sees the problem, but nobody's been able to put a finger on it." When Wojick goes to an agency and says a regulation is confusing for three or five specific reasons, he says, the common reaction he gets from officials is, "You're right."
The foundation of Wojick's ability to pinpoint these problems is a technique that applies the idea of a blueprint — a visual picture of a structure — to the structure of an idea. He discovered that through the blueprints, any discussion or piece of text can be broken down and all the individual ideas can be laid out so the relationships become visible.
The development of the technique springs from the unusual combination of engineering and logic in Wojick's background. Shortly after he graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1964 with a B.S. in civil engineering, Wojick went to work designing dams for the Pittsburgh district of the Corps of Engineers. His exposure there to environmental controversies, watching people "getting lost in complex issues," stirred a longstanding interest in reasoning. He began studying logic and philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh.
Wojick left the Corps in 1970 to work on his dissertation and began teaching at Carnegie Mellon University, where he helped found a Department of Engineering and Public Policy. At Carnegie, he was influenced by the research on human problem solving done by his colleague, Herbert A. Simon, who in 1978 won the Nobel Prize in economics.
Mapping the structure of ideas.
Wojick realized that all issues have a basic underlying structure, one that can be mapped out like an engineering drawing. Using existing theories of conceptual analysis, Wojick "atomized" issues (and later texts) into basic elements. His discovery, he explains, "was that the ideas are held together by unspoken questions. What point is this sentence making? What point is it responding to?"
He was surprised to find that the thousands of pieces of a complex issue fit together in a simple scheme with a logical pattern. Because the kind of hierarchical structure developed is called a "tree" in mathematics, Wojick calls the structures "issue trees". His first practical application, in 1975, was an analysis of the interaction between environmental, energy and economic issues for the Pennsylvania governor's science advisory committee.
A year later, Wojick left the university to devote full time to issue analysis, going into business with his wife and partner, Diane W. Adams. As chief executive officer, Adams manages the finances of the firm and now oversees billings of more than $500,000 a year. She navigated the group's recent move to a 176-acre estate in Virginia, reputed to be the birthplace of President Zachary Taylor. Adams says they chose the property, which includes a house built in 1790, offices and a horse farm for its hour-and-a-half proximity to Washington, D.C.
Devil in the details.
A third key member of the seven-person firm is John E. DeFazio, a chemical engineer who now handles a lot of the analytical work while Wojick hits Washington looking for complicated issues that involve a lot of money. Not all prospective clients can afford the firm's services, because "it takes several person-months to tree out a major regulation," Wojick says. "On the other hand, that's why the process is so powerful. It has the same power that detailed drawings give in constructing a building. We can make hundreds, sometimes thousands, of improvements."
The firm's early jobs included writing compliance manuals on regulations for industry. It wrote a quality assurance manual for Levinson Steel Co., Pittsburgh, for example, setting up the structural steel fabricator's working program for compliance with Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards on nuclear power plant fabrication. Alvin Stein, Levinson's quality assurance director, calls Wojick a "wizard" because the program set up in 1976 in "untested waters" is still working successfully. And it has been flexible enough to allow the company to satisfy the differing regulatory interpretations of different designers.
Next, Wojick landed jobs critiquing regulations for industry. PPG Industries, Inc., Pittsburgh, hired the firm to do a coherence analysis of EPA's proposed premanufacturing regulations under the Toxic Substances Control Act. "The goal of the law is to prevent chemical catastrophes," Wojick explains, "but EPA takes the meat-ax approach of trying to find out everything there is to know about all the chemicals in existence, and then they're going to sort through and find the problems." "We suggest techniques for identifying lines to follow that are most likely to be fruitful," says Wojick. The analysis also found parts of the regulations so unreadable that most accepted scales of readability could not measure them.
Teaching regulators logic.
EPA acknowledged the value of the critique by hiring Wojick to teach EPA regulators how to write logically coherent regs. The firm is also negotiating a contract to rewrite EPA's dredge and fill permit regulations. Wojick has already rewritten regulations for the Water Resources Council. WRC first hired the firm to critique its proposed rules for evaluating the costs and benefits of water projects, then asked the firm for a complete rewrite. DeFazio says, "We threw away 70% of the text, and the other 30% we completely restructured -- all without losing any of the basic ideas." They pared down the roughly 350-page draft to about 80 pages. The firm also rewrote the Council's principles and standards for planning water resource projects.
Adams & Wojick is working with the Department of Commerce and the Office of Management and Budget on a study of information collection burdens. Regulators have a tendency to treat information collection as if it were free, Wojick says, but its costs mount up. "We're working on a computer search program that uses key words like 'document' and 'record' to spot these hidden burdens -- the molasses in the system."
In Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, for example, Wojick finds that many added costs of compliance are hidden in inspectors' manuals and other appendixes. OSHA has regulations for worker exposure to more than 500 chemicals, he says, and the regulations say only that exposure levels must stay under certain numbers of parts per million. "The costly record-keeping requirements are in the attachments," he says.
The key to the firm's approach, Wojick says, is that "we're not institutional players. If you're locked into the system, you can't jump on people and make noise. I'm free to offend anybody, and I do." Wojick will tear apart regulations for industry or work for the government writing them. "We're not for one side or the other, we think they're all making mistakes. Our interest is clarity and sound design," he says.
Regulations writing is just the beginning for Wojick. In the future, he says, "We want to design laws for Congress."
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