Some administrative savings work better than others

If I were planning to run for the legislature, my list of priorities would look a little different from those you usually see. Instead of reciting the usual passionate platitudes about education and economic development, I would talk about saving taxpayer money while improving the performance of government agencies by means of methodical administrative reforms.

Don’t worry, I’m not running, but I have been repeatedly frustrated that I’ve never seen a single campaign promise along these lines. Every now and then when a candidate has knocked on my door, literature in hand, I’ve invited the candidate in and talked about this. It doesn’t do any good. Administrative reform is tedious and unglamorous, is poorly understood by the public, and most of the time it doesn’t produce any bragging rights.

It should especially be a focus of attention for governors and candidates for governor. Just now, with the state’s desperate need to save money, the governor is trying some things that may or may not produce results.

Gov. Martinez announced a few weeks ago that she was considering consolidating departments, but the idea disappeared down a black hole pretty quickly. That is probably because of the pummeling her staff must have taken from irate constituents the minute this thought was expressed.

Superficially, consolidation of small agencies appears to be worth considering. The state has too many departments, and they are wildly disproportionate in size and scope. For example, the Economic Development Department has a budget of less than $10 million, fewer than 100 employees, and one office in Santa Fe plus a couple of special divisions such as the Spaceport Authority. By contrast, the Health Department has a few thousand employees, dozens of specialized services, offices and clinics in every part of the state, and a budget in the range of half a billion dollars.

But putting Economic Development and Tourism back together again, as was suggested, won’t save much money. Almost 30 years ago, one very small department was separated into two even smaller departments because the tourism industry people did not think they were getting enough respect.

Now the governor has announced she is planning to save money by taking all human resources functions out of the agencies and consolidating them in the State Personnel Office.

The human resources office is where employees get help with their human problems and where managers get support for dealing with problem employees. The administration might benefit from standardizing some procedures, but getting rid of departmental human resources offices will not add efficiency. It will most likely slow things down and waste taxpayer resources by making employees less productive. To offer one simple example, what’s it going to take under this new scheme for an employee with a sick child to get approved for a few days of family and medical leave?

Just as underfunding the judiciary (another issue in the current budget debate) may save short-term money but will likely lead to legal delays and complications and their associated costs, underfunding personnel offices will lead to costs that aren’t easy to measure.

Administrative savings are worth looking for, but they take time and require attention to detail. A few thoughts:

Look not at agencies but at functions. Find little bureaus tasked with jobs that may be obsolete or unnecessary, or two bureaus in two different agencies that do the same thing and perhaps could be combined.

Look at properties all over the state, whether owned or leased by the state, not necessarily to get rid of anything but to see whether sharing could produce savings. Agency field offices that are co-located might be able to share everything from restrooms to copy machines and may offer improved convenience for the public.

This kind of analysis won’t help solve a short term budget crisis. In fact, it’s probably a bit late for the current administration. But it’s something I hope to see on the campaign priority lists of our next candidates for governor.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2017

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