Managerial miscues plague the state

image of the Sacramento State Capitol

Politics being what they are, officeholders habitually pitch new services and projects to their constituents, seeking favorable images that will carry them through their next election.

Viewed through the prism of short-term elective politics, management of existing services and projects is seen as humdrum, lacking political sex appeal. But that neglect ill-serves the public and wastes immense amounts of their money.

It’s why, for instance, that in a state renowned for its advanced technology industry, officials have launched dozens of “information technology” projects meant to improve efficiency, but that typically suffer huge cost overruns and often don’t work at all.

The last week of March provided, unfortunately, fresh evidence of serious managerial shortcomings.

State Auditor Elaine Howle issued two eye-popping reports, one on an agency she didn’t name, but was quickly revealed to be the Department of Industrial Relations, and another on the Employment Development Department (EDD).

The director of the former, later identified by the Sacramento Bee as Christine Baker, manipulated the department’s personnel procedures to benefit her daughter and then threatened whistleblowers, Howle said.

“The director’s established pattern of repeatedly violating civil service employment rules, in its totality, constitutes gross misconduct. Our investigation revealed numerous circumstances from 2011 through 2018 in which the director deliberately and willfully disregarded the standards of behavior that a department can rightfully expect from its managers and executives,” Howle said.

Higher-ups in the Jerry Brown administration brushed aside the allegations when they first arose and Brown later appointed Baker to the state Fraud Assessment Commission – an ironic action, to say the least.

Two days later, Howle’s office issued a sharply critical report on EDD, finding that it “likely sent more than 17 million pieces of mail containing full Social Security numbers (SSNs) to a total of more than a million people in fiscal year 2017–18” and concluded that “EDD’s practice of including full SSNs on mail continues to put its customers at risk of identity theft.”

Moreover, “Although EDD has undertaken efforts since 2015 to reduce the amount of mail it sends to claimants that include full SSNs, its efforts have been insufficient.” Modernization of the department’s software to eliminate SSN’s on its mailings won’t be completed “any earlier than September 2024.”

A third report deals with the state agency that has been reviled for decades – the Department of Motor Vehicles.

When reports of hours-long waits at DMV field offices reached Sacramento last year, several legislators requested an audit by Howle’s office, but Brown, then in the last year of his governorship, insisted that his own Department of Finance could delve into the agency’s problems, including chronic delays in implementing the federal government’s REAL ID program of secure driver’s licenses.

The internal audit report was probably softer than what Howle’s office would have produced, but nevertheless confirmed endemic managerial shortcomings.

“DMV’s operations are not always efficient and effective in delivering services to its customers and many opportunities exist to improve its practices and enhance the field office customer experience,” it said. “Although the REAL ID implementation and long wait times during summer 2018 highlighted problems at the DMV, the findings and recommendations described throughout this report indicate DMV has operated with significant weaknesses in its underlying governance structure and organizational culture.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom has vowed to fix DMV, but as that one week’s reports indicate, it’s merely one black hole of bad management. Perhaps he and other Capitol politicians should work on making state government function better before taking on such pitfall-laden projects as a bullet train, universal early childhood education or single-payer health care.

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