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John Florez: Bureaucracies do not work for customers, feds should be more like Utah

Published: Saturday, Oct. 26 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Utah’s governor promoted the former director of the Department of Workforce Services (DWS) after she made a $28.1 million error after she rolled out the Medicaid eligibility program. He promoted her to his office of management and budget to “assure efficiency in state government.”

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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When it comes to errors, the feds ought to do what Utah does when administrators make them — promote them.

That’s what Utah’s governor did after the former director of the Department of Workforce Services (DWS) made a $28.1 million error after she rolled out the Medicaid eligibility program. He promoted her to his office of management and budget to “assure efficiency in state government.” The mistake was revealed by a 2009 legislative audit after the program was transferred in 2007 from the health department to DWS as a "cost saving" measure.

The legislative auditor's office may soon be releasing another audit of DWS under the former director triggered by numerous complaints from staff who said they had been mistreated and then threatened for raising the issue. Advocates for the poor also raised concerns about the insensitive treatment clients receive. It prompted state Rep. Jim Bird, R-Utah, to request the audit last year after receiving a number of emails from current and former DWS employees. The former director had been lauded for managing DWS in an efficient and cost saving way. Does that mean that our government is more concerned about efficiency than effectiveness? Was that at the expense of running a customer-driven and effective organization? How elected leaders handle the audit could be most revealing.

It’s all political. Political appointees and their career underlings often overload the bureaucracy with needless regulations and procedures to show lawmakers how efficient and mistake-free they are in managing their agency. Some politicians are only concerned about the next election, and show outrage only when problems become public. The result is the creation of a culture of fear of failure. I often wonder if Ben Franklin had been a public employee, would we have electricity. Politicians today would probably tell him to go fly a kite.

Free enterprise thrives and rewards risk taking and allows for failure. When Intel found a $1 billion dollar glitch in their new microchip, they first tried to overlook the problem, but quickly realized it was better to own up to the problem and fix it. As Andy Grove, then Chair of Intel once said, “Senior managers got to where they are by having been good at what they do … so it’s not surprising that they will keep implementing the same strategic and tactical moves that worked for them during the course of their careers … I call this phenomenon the inertia of success ...” Public organizations, being monopolies, have no need to risk or be customer driven.

The road of free enterprise is strewn with failures. The current Affordable Care Act’s glitches and its critics are a good example of why public agencies become sclerotic. The software system was outsourced by bureaucrats who probably worried about protecting the institution, and feared risking. So my guess is they added more data requirements to the contract than were needed. The critics immediately called the policy a failure, rather than what Andy Grove did, fixed the problem. Where would Apple be if it didn’t risk and stopped with failure?

America was built by leaders who were willing to risk for the public good. Utah leaders tout free enterprise, yet somehow fail to see how they discourage risk taking, and allow administrators to focus on efficiency rather than effectiveness in government. We need leaders who have the political will to do the hard work of helping our public servants risk to focus on being customer driven instead of institution driven.

Utah native John Florez has been on Sen. Orrin Hatch's staff, served as Utah industrial commissioner and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and commission on Hispanic education. Email: jdflorez@comcast.net

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