B&G Report: The Next VA Scandal and the Pros and Cons of Appointed Employee Contracts

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Do you work for a government agency with a waiting list for services -- like one that deals with public housing, Medicaid waivers or state-subsidized child care? This topic is pretty hot in the news, given the scandalous breakdown of waiting list processes at the Veterans Administration, which allowed tens of thousands of former military personnel to languish while awaiting care. But we’re curious to know whether there are many instances of waiting list problems at the state and local levels. We’d appreciate hearing from any readers with experience dealing with this issue. We’ll happily keep your comments off the record if you’d prefer.

Many cities and states give preferences to minority-owned companies when awarding contracts. This is a complicated area; square in the intersection of social and fiscal policy. We’re not going to begin to address the pros and cons in a general sense, but we’ve repeatedly heard about instances in which the minority groups also get the minority of the benefits from government contracts.

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On May 8, 2014, Dennis Gallagher, the auditor of the city and county of Denver, wrote a letter to the city’s mayor, Michael Hancock, about a $39.6 million contract related to the city’s new hotel and transit center. The minority-held company that got the contract turns out to only get two percent of the payments as a transaction fee for “processing the paper work of the subcontractors it has retained to actually do the work.” One of these subcontractors alone is getting more than half the funds, some $23 million. According to the auditor that organization is not minority-owned.

The auditor continues, “I cannot believe that is what was intended with the award.” Neither can we.

In San Jose, as in many other cities, library hours have been shortened due to cuts in budget and staff. With the decline in services, the community's satisfaction with libraries diminished as well. In the city's 2013 community survey, only 44 percent of respondents viewed library hours as excellent or good. That's 19 percent below the 2009 result.

Can a city win back those unsatisfied residents without spending more money? One suggestion comes from the city's audit office -- why not switch around library branch schedules so the buildings are open when people are most likely to use them -- for example, Tuesdays and Saturdays rather than Thursday and Friday mornings, which have historically been the times when it's least likely that people will drop by.

The auditor also notes that Sundays were "exceptionally well utilized" when offered in the past. No branches had Sunday hours when San Jose released the report in March.

Blogs can be a really interesting way to get information, particularly if you have the means to evaluate their credibility. But one thing that’s long made us angry -- specifically in online publications  that are intended to allow for free and open commentary about a state or locality -- is the unremittingly negative and often vitriolic nature of the comments users leave on blog posts.

We fear that an unsophisticated reader could assume these comments are representative of the public at large. With this in mind, we took note of the decision on the part of the blog portion of USA.gov, the website of the General Services Administration, the independent agency of the United States government that helps support the basic functioning of federal agencies, to stop allowing people to comment to its posts.

Initially, the comments seemed useful to readers of the blog. But, according to Jessica Milcetich, a social media and digital strategist for USA.gov, eventually staff noticed a problem:

Gone were the comments that added insight, expanded on a topic or shared a new idea. Instead they were replaced by spam -- thinly veiled as “real comments. In a misguided attempt [to help] … users to gain ...  value from the USA.gov site. ... We were wasting valuable time on a daily basis shifting through the spam, looking for any possible real comments in with the rubbish.

After a few months of finding none, we decided we’d had enough. The decision to turn off comments isn’t making it harder for people to engage with us. We welcome our users to share their feedback with us on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. If social media isn’t their thing, we also let our users email us directly.

Along the same lines as the previous item about blogs, we’d recommend that policy makers disregard raw data about the number of complaints that have come in about any particular item. While it may be a good line for a speech to say that over 1,000 complaints have come into a city about an issue, the number could be totally misleading. In fiscal year 2013, for instance, the San Jose Airport received 834 noise complaints. Two thirds of them came from three individuals, according to the city’s service, efforts and accomplishments report.

The JobsOhio program was considered an innovative public/private economic development agency when newly elected Gov. John Kasich created it back in 2011. There have been allegations over the last few years that the program has “exaggerated its impact, funneled state money to companies that did not create or retain the promised jobs and has a pattern of helping companies with ties to its politically potent governing board,” according to a report  from Progress Ohio, an alliance of progressive organizations in the state.

We can’t vouch for or against those allegations. But what really bothers us is the comment made in a release about the program: “The secrecy engulfing JobsOhio makes it impossible to do a comprehensive analysis of the agency’s performance.”

Apparently, Kasich structured JobsOhio in such a way to shield it from Ohio’s Public Records Laws. We know that there may well be some political infighting going on between the critics of JobsOhio, who are primarily liberal, and its advocates. But this all brings a question to our mind: Are public/private operations often freed from opening their books and records to the public, in contrast to purely public enterprises?

"The most interesting thing you can do is to talk to someone who you think is different from you and try and find common ground." -- Malcolm Gladwell

In years past, Massachusetts hasn’t done a great job reporting on the performance of public agencies. But the state has apparently determined that it’s worthwhile to step up reporting, and has released a variety of reports in 2013 and 2014. They can be found on a very straightforward website that features links to reports on administration and finance, education, energy and environmental affairs, health and human services public safety, transportation and more.

We’ve had enough personal experience evaluating states, cities and counties to know that one of the first responses many administrations have  to a critique is to blame  the previous administration. So, when Virginia auditors found a remarkable 93 separate problems at the agency that runs the state parks and land preservation efforts, the current administration claimed the issues were inherited, while others wanted to blame things on the current governor and his staff, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

A couple of the big issues raised were lack of tax returns or payments to the state’s department of transportation in the last full year; inadequate record keeping on some federal environmental grants, which means the state will forgo over $180,000; and inadequate controls over its $38 million payroll.

One of the big problems the paper uncovered was the way the department appeared to use vacant positions -- for which salary money was still provided -- as a kind of slush fund to help balance budgets. The agency's full-time workforce is around 373, though it's authorized for 452 positions. This, by the way, isn’t a problem nearly unique to Virginia. If you’re interested, take a look at a column we wrote about this topic, back in 2009.

What are the pros and cons of employment contracts for top mayoral or gubernatorial appointees? Seattle surveyed 22 other cities to get a sense of best practices in the context of hiring a new police chief, but it’s likely the same principles apply in other job categories.

Only a minority of the cities surveyed actually give formal contracts to their police chiefs, but the general thrust of the responses about employment contracts was positive. For one thing, the survey indicated that they can sometimes help attract great, creative people who want more financial security. What’s more, when a contract is properly written, it can be easier for the city to remove a chief through a removal clause, while the chief can guarantee receipt of advance notice or compensation in the event that he or she is let go. Additionally, the contract provides an easy way to codify, with agreement on both sides, goals and objectives to be used in future evaluations.

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