Commission seeks input in Manchester on government efficiencies

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MANCHESTER >> The State Government Restructuring and Operations Review Commission is looking for a few more good ideas.

The three-member commission was in Manchester on Tuesday for its first information-gathering session outside the state capital — continuing to gather input on "reinventing" aspects of Vermont government to make its operations more efficient and less costly.

Vermont Foodbank CEO John Sayles, the commission chairman, and members Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, and Jeffrey Wilson, former Manchester town manager and state representative, said they will hold additional hearings in two other communities before filing their report to the Legislature and Gov. Peter Shumlin in mid-November.

"Really, we want to hear from you," Sayles told the handful of residents and local officials who attended the evening session at the Manchester Community Library.

In explaining the role of the commission, which was created by the Legislature in 2015, Costello noted the tendency of government departments to grow over time without an overall plan or vision — and often differently in various regions of the state.

With the commission, the state "wanted to take a step back and ask, are there points of rationalization, points of efficiency," Costello said, and to look closely at governmental functions and structure, as well as explore further public-private partnerships that might improve or streamline government operations.

In the Legislature, "there was a consensus [on those study goals] after tough budget years over the past two, three, four or five years," Wilson said.

According to a preliminary report the commission prepared for the Legislature in February, the first several months of the study involved seeking input and hearing testimony in Montpelier from a range of stakeholders, including agency directors and personnel, department heads, government appointees, managers in state government and elected officials.

The commission also worked with the University of Vermont to research on prior government efficiency studies in Vermont and around the county, and utilized some recent state studies, on tax structure, information technology and other topics.

Among those attending the session was Nissa Walke, a substance abuse prevention consultant with the Vermont Department of Health. She described inefficiencies and barriers that employees and members of the public must work around in dealing with multiple departments of offices.

Most who seek help also have to physically trek between different buildings or offices to access services or benefits, she said, and they often require services from the DPH, the Department for Families and Children and other state departments simultaneously.

There also typically is "an overwhelming" amount of paperwork created for each person as they pass through different offices, Walke said.

Efforts to shift some of that process online — or to improve inter-office communication — are likewise hampered by aging computer systems, she said. Walke added that it is sometimes difficult to reach important decisions concerning individual cases when officials from different departments, and at different levels within departments, must be contacted, informed and sign off on the next steps.

Overcoming the "siloing" effect of departments that are accustomed to handling most duties within the department, even when cross-department management of some aspects or greater collaboration might be more efficient, is a theme cited in the commission's preliminary report.

Michael Harrington, Bennington's economic development director, agreed. He said he's worked at a college that moved previously scattered student services personnel into a single large office, so that students could find everything they needed in one building. He said that "one-stop shopping" model might work in some instances in state government.

Another option used elsewhere, Harrington said, is to assign a specific advocate to help each client as they move through every step in dealing with multiple departments.

Based on his experience, he said there appears to be "significant layering" within the management levels of state government departments, resulting in redundancies in terms services and staffing.

Jim Sullivan, executive director of the Bennington County Regional Commission, said he has seen a desire for more cross-agency collaboration at the upper levels of some state departments, but "sometimes when you get down to the worker bees," that message hasn't gotten through.

"Big picture" considerations about economic or alternative energy development sometimes bump into the narrow departmental focus of individuals at the field level approving permits for transportation or environmental projects, Sullivan said.

The BCRC, he added, is a possible model for local services delivery, as it recently contracted with the Bennington Industrial Development Corp. and they now act as "one organization," which Sullivan said should make it less confusing for developers, the public and other government officials wishing to access those services.

The same is true of the Bennington County Solid Waste Alliance, which united into one entity from 13 towns that formerly acted separately on solid waste issues, he said.

Wilson said commissioners found that different areas of the state are "vastly different" in their approaches to having government entities work together corroboratively.

The state should find ways to encourage those regional approaches that seem to be creating more efficient delivery of services, Costello said.

No obvious departmental restructuring solution to inefficiency in state government surfaced during the study, Wilson said.

The focus, according to the commission's preliminary report, is more on operational changes to strengthen inter-department and office communication and collaboration; improve data management and utilization and information technology systems; boost government accountability; analyze and improve service delivery alignments, foster strategic planning and management and pursue efficient public-private partnerships.

Another theme of the preliminary report is to foster a culture of "continuous improvement" in state government.

Wilson said that, in his opinion, the prime impetus for continual improvement and refinement of operations must come from the chief performance officer's position in the governor's office, and that that official or officials, if more are added, need to work "out in the entire state."

Harrington said quality control officials should have authority to halt operational practices or departmental alignments that aren't working and require changes.

Sayles said there is hope that improvements will result from subsequent actions by the Legislature and the governor, based on the study report. But he cautioned that the commission noted during its review that similar studies and reports done in the past "mainly had good ideas that were not implemented because of the challenges" of altering department structures officials want to maintain.

The commission's interim report and a contact form for anyone wishing to add comments can be found at http://legislature.vermont.gov/assets/Legislative-Reports/GRORC-Interim-Report-Final.pdf

Jim Therrien covers Southern Vermont news for the Bennington Banner and VtDigger.org. He can be reached at 802-447-7567, Ext. 114.


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