The workload on state government managers has been steadily intensifying, with sky-high caseloads, increasing administrative responsibilities attached to federal stimulus dollars, tasks related to layoffs and furloughs, to name a few. What’s more, the large number of upcoming gubernatorial transitions will mean a variety of unforeseen managerial needs as new and different programs await implementation.
It would be nice if more resources could alleviate the growing pressure (pause for laughter). A few months ago when this column covered evaluation and research, we found a range of important government administrative jobs were cut back or eliminated.
Ted Zaleski III, director of the Department of Management and Budget in Carroll County, Md., wrote to us that this phenomenon concerns him. His county is suffering from a lack of timely income tax information from the state, which the state collects. “How will that affect our ability to project our second largest revenue?” Zaleski asks. He may have posed this as a rhetorical question, but it’s hard not to see a clear answer.
Governments have yet to really understand the ramifications of administrative cutbacks. “I don’t think we know how we are being hurt yet,” Zaleski told us. “The change, for the most part, is still too new.” As Zaleski notes, some problems may take years to really be understood. There are places where a locality or agency will make do for a while, but will find that it won’t be sustainable. There will be places where tasks won’t get done. “We won’t know about it for a while,” Zaleski says, “maybe not until a specific problem brings [it to our] attention.”
Eva Santos, director of the Washington state Department of Personnel and president of the National Association of State Personnel Executives, catalogs cuts in her department: The executive recruitment program was eliminated, as was an internal consulting service to help agencies with staff testing and assessment. Her training unit was cut in half. Many services handled by the central personnel agency will be outsourced, and some personnel activities just won’t happen. “Preparing future leaders is a great concern to me,” Santos says. “Agencies, which are squeezed by massive budget cuts themselves, have been less likely to send employees for training.”
Last year, King County, Wash., eliminated a training and organizational development program originally designed to reduce county risk, improve management skills and promote employee development. Twenty classes were eliminated, which had taught county managers and employees everything from facilitating effective meetings to county leave policies. The cuts occurred when the county most needed to train its staff on change management, performance management and process improvement to deal with tight economic strains, according to Michael Jacobson, manager of the Performance Management Section in King County’s Office of Strategic Planning and Performance Management.
Cuts in personnel functions appear to be an epidemic. Many departments are reeling, according to an August survey of state personnel offices administered by Sally Selden, a management professor at Lynchburg College in Virginia. Like Washington, Oklahoma lost 12 percent of its HR staff; Ohio lost 16 percent; and Maryland saw more than one-quarter of its central personnel staff cut.
Shrinking personnel capacity is just the tip of the melting iceberg. IT and general services staffs also are being shortchanged. “There are things not getting done that alarm me,” says former California CIO Teri Takai. “If you look at our data centers, we are basically scrambling to keep things running.” Some IT projects are simply being delayed, for example, while hardware purchases are being deferred.
Mark Abrahams, a government consultant who has run the government efficiency firm, the Abrahams Group, since 1994, is alarmed by cutbacks in accounting and finance functions. “I’m concerned from an internal control point of view that the drive to maintain services is affecting the ability to keep financial data timely, accurate and accessible,” he says. “Cutbacks in budget and controller shops are limiting the ability of towns to maintain proper internal controls.”
While it may be asking too much of the political system to favor administrative jobs over direct service-related jobs, there are some routes to ease the pain.
Some cities and states, for example, are considering consolidating payroll, purchasing and IT functions in central agencies, therefore eliminating duplication without giving up on effectiveness.
Local governments are increasingly looking at shared services, rather than outright consolidation. Back offices, for example, are a good target for this kind of approach.
The use of cloud computing, in which unique IT systems for individual agencies are less necessary, can save governmental engineering demands as well as the need for operational staff.
And if all else fails, consider the words of Oregon Audits Division Director Gary Blackmer: “Too often, we auditors and the public believe that any theft or mistake, no matter how small, is unacceptable and the hole needs to be patched, no matter the cost. My theme now is that cutting administration will expose agencies to greater risks. They simply have to acknowledge that and accept it.”